There are growing calls for Canada to support lifting patents for COVID-19 vaccines and other coronavirus-related medical products that could potentially boost global access to supplies amid the pandemic.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau April 24, more than 900 medical students and health advocates across the country urged the Canadian government to sign a proposal for an intellectual property (IP) waiver to enable patent-free, widespread manufacturing of COVID-19 medicines and vaccines.
Under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) there are limits on which countries and facilities can produce vaccines and other medical supplies.
“An IP waiver is the first step towards global vaccine and medicine equity,” said Divya Santhanam, a second-year medical student at Western University, and co-author of the letter.
“It will help break down barriers to vaccine production globally, allowing countries all over the world to produce vaccines without being constrained by the private industry,” the 23-year-old told Global News.
As it stands now, COVID-19 vaccine technology is considered a private property by pharmaceutical corporations.
Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and several other high-income countries have thus far blocked negotiations at the WTO about a proposal jointly submitted in October by India and South Africa that would waive the IP rights of pharmaceutical companies to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines.
The proposal has been backed by more than 100 mostly developing countries as well as the World Health Organization (WHO).
The proposed waiver was discussed at a WTO General Council meeting on Wednesday.
While Canada has not rejected the proposal and remained neutral, Trudeau said Tuesday the government was “actively participating” in discussions around vaccine patent protections.
“We understand how important it is to get vaccines to the most vulnerable around the world and we will keep working for that,” he said during a news conference.
In their letter, the medical students noted that 82 per cent of COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to high-income countries compared to only 0.3 per cent to low-income nations.
In their list of demands, the students urged Canada to endorse the COVID-19 technology access pool (CTAP), which aims to accelerate scale-up of manufacturing and removing global barriers to access.
They also called on Ottawa to leverage diplomatic relations to lead global partnerships in supporting the TRIPS waiver and lifting any bans globally on the export of materials necessary to vaccine production.
In an emailed statement to Global News, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Michel Cimpaye said, “Canada is working with other WTO members to clarify any trade-related barriers in this area, and committed to finding consensus-based solutions to any IP-related challenges experienced by WTO members.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. said on Wednesday that it was willing to waive IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines.
The letter from the medical students was submitted in a brief to the Standing Committee of International Trade last Friday.
“We’re meeting with senators later this week with our larger team and looking forward to further advocating on this issue,” Santhanam said.
Why does an IP waiver matter?
Ahead of the G7 summit in the U.K. next month, pressure is mounting on Canada from advocacy groups as well to support the IP waiver proposal.
Some 40 organizations pleaded their case in an open letter to Trudeau dated March 11.
“This waiver proposal is not a panacea,” they wrote, arguing that the removal of barriers and restrictions would allow WTO member states and the scientific community to continue working on developing and distributing new diagnostics, vaccines, medicines and medical supplies, without fear of litigation risk and trade sanctions.
WTO-protected exclusive rights enable pharmaceutical companies to charge higher prices and inhibit generic competition, the letter added.
Anita Ho, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of British Columbia, said an IP waiver needs to be “seriously considered” to allow better cooperation between countries.
“Many of these vaccines were able to be developed so quickly because of international collaboration and because of government investment in these vaccines,” she told Global News.
But critics say waiving the WTO’s agreement on TRIP could reduce the safety of vaccines, and that setting up production in new places would sap resources needed to boost production in existing locations.
COVAX and India’s crisis
Canada has ordered the world’s largest number of coronavirus vaccine doses per capita.
Among those are doses from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is producing and supplying the AstraZeneca vaccine — under the brand name Covishield.
An initial shipment of 500,000 vaccine doses has already arrived in Canada and is being doled out in some provinces. An additional 1.5 million additional doses of the jab are expected to arrive by the spring.
India’s supplies are also going to the WHO-led COVAX vaccine-sharing facility to help countries get equal access.
Canada is the only G7 national availing itself of vaccine doses from the COVAX pool.
Some experts argue that Canada should decline upcoming AstraZeneca supplies from India and source from other regions as India needs to massively vaccinate its own population to be able to get out of a devastating second wave that has rocked the nation.
“I think the world owes an awful lot to India,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto.
“At this point, some countries like India are going through a much more dire situation,” she told Global News. “And so we should make sure that they are first equipped to deal with the situation that they are in first.”
— With files from Reuters