The business of vaccines against Covid-19 at the center of WTO debates


December 21, 2020

As vaccination against Covid-19 begins in Europe and the United States, many heads of state have made statements to hope that the entire world’s population can have access to it. The most optimistic would think that these declarations result from an awareness of the importance that in XXIe century, health is available to all. Cynically, we can conclude that these expressions of goodwill are in fact well clothed with a pressing need: that the majority of people be vaccinated so that the pandemic is beaten. However, universal vaccination does not seem to have been fully obtained so far. Rich countries will buy nearly 80% of the world’s vaccine production by 2022. Some have taken doses to vaccinate their entire population multiple times, thus getting a disproportionate share of the vaccines that will be available.

The debates currently taking place within the World Trade Organization (WTO) about the fight against Covid-19 do not leave illusions about the good intentions of the most developed countries. In an editorial introducing 11e briefs from the WTO, the monthly letter published by the Permanent Delegation of France to the Organization explains how countries hosting large pharmaceutical laboratories are campaigning for respect for intellectual property rights agreements such as discussed in the frame ofUruguay Round (TRIP). Emerging and developing countries, on the other hand, are well aware that as before, they will be the last to serve, and are also concerned about the cost that the vaccination campaign will represent for them and their population, are asking for temporary access to suspension. to these rights to have access to treatments and/or vaccines.

“However, we thought this problem had been resolved since the Doha Ministerial Conference in 2001! Its decision has led to the sole amendment to a WTO agreement since the Uruguay Round: it allows LDCs (least developed countries) and, countries with insufficient production capacity, to use ‘compulsory license specials’ to import generic copies of any drug. », Explained Jean-Marie Paugam, in its editorial 11e short. India and South Africa therefore submitted a request at the beginning of December for the temporary suspension of the TRIPS agreement, on aspects of intellectual property rights affecting trade). They oppose the more liberal in spirit, but in reality the conservative and protectionist views of large countries, led by the European Union, a vision that also has a geopolitical dimension around a certain idea of ​​vaccine diplomacy, certainly. These arguments were developed at a recent webinar organized at IRIS as part of the Observatory (Dis) information and geopolitics during Covid-19.

At one time, these different perspectives also conflicted with companies. Some of them are putting pressure on their States to protect and patent their vaccines as soon as possible. Others, on the contrary, support initiatives aimed at ensuring the widest possible access to the vaccine.

For the first, the approach is even more surprising – not to say surprising – because their research and development is largely funded by public funds and that, due to the health emergency, their return on investment and their profits. is ensured. through their sole outlet in wealthy countries. The lack of transparency is total and we probably won’t know what these revenues are.

For the latter, on the other hand, and it is innovative enough to underline, has already launched in the early 2000s a Global Fund for the fight against major period pandemics (AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria) as well. an alliance. for vaccines at the initiative of the Gates Foundation, Unicef, World Bank and WHO. GAVI or Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization is pushing vaccine suppliers to lower their prices for the poorest countries. Today, it participates in vaccinating half of the world’s children. They are now involved in an accelerator for access to tools to combat Covid-19 (ACT-Accelerator) including a column of “vaccines” through the vaccine purchase facility, Covax. It should be noted that Africa’s candidate for WTO leadership, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala currently heads the GAVI board of directors, which also manages Covax, but his appointment, to be held in early November, is currently blocked by the United States and South Korea.

Again, this scenario shows us how the debates around globalization remain divided and somewhat unpredictable between national selfishness and the defense of the collective interest, how many States are no longer, far from it, the only actors in a global governance in total change. . Non-state actors, companies and NGOs as representatives of civil societies are, in most operational situations, more active and effective actors in finding collective and pragmatic solutions.

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