US administration’s support for COVID-19 vaccines’ TRIPS waiver a huge step forward

The announcement by the Biden administration that it will support the waiver of WTO TRIPS rules for COVID-19 vaccines is a major step towards bringing the pandemic under control.

The waiver, proposed by India and South Africa, has support from many other governments, but the European Union, the UK and Australia in particular have yet to agree.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said: “US support will hopefully break the stalemate on this vital question. All governments must stand up to the greed of pharmaceutical companies putting profits before people. The WTO TRIPS Council meeting on 8 and 9 June must be the moment to settle this matter, and in the meantime preparations to implement the waiver should be underway.”

The TRIPS rules mean only the companies that own patents on newer vaccine technologies, such as mRNA vaccines, can make the vaccines. This limits the speed with which vaccines such as mRNA vaccines can be supplied.

Richer countries have bought up these limited stocks, leaving little for poorer countries through the WHO COVAX facility. As a result, rich countries are vaccinating a person a minute, including groups not at higher risk of death or severe disease, while most poor countries have yet to vaccinate anyone.

A risk to all

This imperils everybody. The longer it takes to vaccinate everyone, the more cases of Covid-19 there will be, and every case is a chance for the virus to evolve. If it evolves into a strain that the vaccine does not work against, then even vaccinated people will again be at risk. If more countries could make vaccines, however, vaccination would proceed faster and that risk would diminish.

Sharan Burrow added: “The potential to massively ramp up vaccine production exists, and several developing countries are already producing or preparing to produce vaccines that are based on established viral vector technology which is more openly available.

“This needs to happen with the newer mRNA technology and other approaches as well. Removing TRIPS barriers and supporting production capacity to ensure both knowledge and skills transfer would open the possibility for a major global effort to boost vaccine-manufacturing capacity, and also to overcome shortages of chemical inputs to manufacturing and other supply chain issues.

“Any intellectual property constraints on enabling universal access to Covid-19 tests, including rapid antigen tests, treatments and other public health tools, also need to be removed. Vaccines are crucial, but they must be supported by these other tools for bringing the pandemic under control. International cooperation to ensure that industry policy tackles these challenges is vital.

“The global effort must have two objectives: firstly, scaling up production and distribution of vaccines for the immediate challenges of the pandemic; and secondly, building vaccine resilience to handle Covid variants of concern, and indeed new pandemics in the future. All options should be explored, including the potential for regional production hubs.”

Trade union networks

The ITUC is also concerned about nationalistic politicisation of the pandemic, including vaccines, and calls on all governments to work together to bring the pandemic under control. Where vaccines are already available, the reluctance of some people to get vaccinated – often due to misinformation on social media – is a real problem.

Trade unions in many countries are deploying their networks of workplace delegates to ensure that workers, and the community at large, have the information needed to take an informed decision to get vaccinated.

“Science alone cannot get the world through this pandemic. The social and economic settings are also critical to ensure that maximum benefit can be obtained from scientific discovery. Investment in health, the care economy and social protection and the other elements of the new social contract are needed to protect people and suppress transmission of the virus,” said Sharan Burrow.