The UK Civil Society Position on WTO negotiations and the TRIPS waiver

This statement outlines the UK Civil Society position on the current World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) negotiations:

Key points: 

  • We continue to fully support the original TRIPS waiver proposal from the Governments of India and South Africa as the best way to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments for all.
  • The text on which current negotiations are based is extremely limited: it does not cover COVID-19 therapeutics or diagnostics, it does not cover all forms of intellectual property and it does not include all countries.
  • The text must be strengthened to bring it as close as possible to the original TRIPS waiver proposal. Only then should the UK support this text.

In March 2022 we became aware of a leaked outcome text relating to the TRIPS negotiation process regarding COVID-19 intellectual property (IP). This text is now the centre of WTO negotiations. Despite signalling consensus that IP is a barrier to equitable access, the text is severely limited with many changes that drastically diminish its effectiveness. We have called on the UK Government to address these limitations and call for a waiver that covers not just COVID-19 vaccines but also treatments and diagnostics. Any agreement should also cover all forms of IP and should not exclude any country from using it.

We know that without global access to vaccines, the risk of new variants emerging and reducing the efficacy of vaccine protection is high – yet still only 10% of people in low income countries (LICs) have been fully vaccinated. Access to COVID-19 treatments also remains a huge challenge with wealthy countries having bought up almost the entire supply of Pfizer’s Paxlovid and MSD’s Lagevrio for 2022, while current voluntary licence agreements exclude many countries with established manufacturing capacity restricting supply further. A key cause of inequitable access to these tools is the monopolisation of IP for COVID-19 technologies giving a handful of multinational pharmaceutical companies concentrated control over their manufacturing, distribution and pricing.

The original proposal from the Governments of India and South Africa sought to remedy this by temporarily suspending patents, and protections on trade secrets and undisclosed information for all COVID-19 tools. All countries would be eligible to utilise this waiver, helping to create policy space and stimulating collaboration across countries and regions to scale-up and diversify supply. While the text begins to address limits on exports which currently undermine the utility of compulsory licences, it contains several deeply problematic limitations: 

  • Firstly, the text only includes vaccines. Given that vaccine coverage is so low in LICs, the need for life-saving treatments and diagnostics is especially important. IP monopolies on therapeutics are restricting countries with manufacturing capacity from being able to produce treatments and keeping prices out of reach for many low and middle income countries (LMICs). 
  • Secondly, the text contains a limited geographical scope, meaning developing countries which exported more than 10% of world exports of COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2021 are not eligible for the waiver  This could exclude countries that hold manufacturing capacity, again restricting essential supply. Additionally, there is also an ambiguous definition of “developing” and “developed” countries. 
  • Thirdly, the text introduces requirements that go beyond the already onerous requirements in established TRIPS legislation making it harder to utilise the public health safeguards (known as TRIPS flexibilities) that are built into the TRIPS Agreement to facilitate access to medicines and which the UK supports the use of. For example, it introduces a new requirement to list all relevant patents when a country wants to use a compulsory licences, elongating the process. 
  • Lastly, the scope of the text falls short by only including patents and failing to propose a waiver on other forms of IP such as trade secrets and confidential information. Trade secrets and confidential information protections limit access to critical safety, efficacy and manufacturing information needed to expedite the production process. Without access to this information, production of vaccines (and treatments and diagnostics if agreed to later on in the process) will be significantly slowed down.  

We believe that to be successful any waiver must:

  • Immediately waive IP for not only COVID-19 vaccines but for all treatments and technologies associated with COVID-19, including diagnostics and therapeutics. 
  • Apply not only to patents but all forms of IP including manufacturing know-how, confidential information and trade secrets to expedite the production process.
  • Enable a TRIPS waiver in all geographies, not just those below the export limit of 10% or defined as ‘developing’. 
  • Ensure no additional limitations on the use of existing TRIPS flexibilities are introduced, including unnecessary reporting requirements for export or the listing of patents when a country wishes to issue a compulsory licence.

The UK Government cannot remain silent on the TRIPS waiver. We must achieve equitable access to COVID-19 technologies and treatments for all to end this pandemic.