- Michael Jian
Patients before Patients: Canada Must Support the TRIPs Waiver for COVID-19 Vaccines
Intellectual property is currently a barrier to swiftly scaling up the production of vaccines and other COVID-19-related health products. To address this problem, India and South Africa, with the support of more than 100 countries, submitted a TRIPS Agreement waiver proposal at the WTO, requesting that countries be allowed to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for technologies related to COVID-19 prevention, containment, and treatment. Unfortunately, the wealthy G-7 nations, home to major pharmaceutical companies, blocked the proposal. It is extremely shameful for countries hoarding vaccines to deny access to less fortunate ones through the imposition of artificial scarcity. If Canada wants to minimize the risks of further mutations and to maintain its image as a humanitarian power, it must promote global vaccine equity and throw its full support behind the TRIPS waiver proposal.
Opponents of the waiver claim that it will not improve access to vaccines and other pandemic-related health products due to a lack of existing production capacity. This is simply not true as factories in Bangladesh and India that already make vaccines against viruses like hepatitis are unable to contribute to the international pandemic response because they lack the required licenses. For a case closer to home, Bolivia has been waiting since May for either the implementation of the TRIPS waiver or for COVID-19 vaccines to be added to the list of Schedule 1 drugs under Canada’s Patent Act to allow Biolyse Pharma, an Ontario-based company, to produce and then export 15 million generic doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.
The Bolivian Minister of Foreign Relations publicly criticized Ottawa’s lack of urgency and the inconsistency between Canada’s curated image as a champion for equity and its impediment of access to vaccines in the global south. Indeed, Ottawa is hesitant around waiving big pharma’s IP to encourage investments from the industry. The country is also reserved on the TRIPS waiver since it already purchased a large amount of vaccines from the relevant companies. The government is embarrassing Canadians through its prioritization of profits over human lives. It is past time for developed nations like Canada to show what our words are worth and to assume moral responsibility in the international pandemic response through supporting IP protection exemptions like the TRIPS waiver.
Big pharma advocates also argue that the TRIPS waiver would harm innovation and deter companies from developing vaccines in the future. This claim disregards the fact that public money paid for vaccine research. All approved COVID-19 vaccines were developed in large part with government support, accounting for up to 97.1% of R&D funding in the case of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. It is unconscionable to prioritize big pharma’s profits over people, especially when we, the taxpayers, helped foot the bill for their IPs.
The adoption of the TRIPS waiver would benefit Canada and every other country in the world as making use of idle vaccine manufacturing capacity would help end the pandemic faster. Currently, experts estimate that most low-income nations will take until 2024 to achieve mass immunization. This puts all of us at risk since the virus will continue mutating, potentially into more infectious variants, if it is not controlled now. Indeed, the global spread of the Delta and Omicron variants shows that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
 See Laura Osman, “Bolivia calls on Canada to waive patent and export COVID-19 vaccines”, The Globe and Mail (November 9 2021), online: < https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-bolivia-calls-on-canada-to-waive-patent-and-export-covid-19-vaccines-2/>.  Ibid.  See Michael Safi, “Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’ ”, The Guardian (April 15 2021), online: <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/apr/15/oxfordastrazeneca-covid-vaccine-research-was-97-publicly-funded>.