“Big Pharma should not be the one calling the shots during the pandemic”

Fatima Hassan from Health Justice International talks about the TRIPS waiver proposal, vaccine apartheid, and the WTO’s role in pandemic response and recovery

December 03, 2021 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Activists in South Africa protesting against the stalling of TRIPS Waiver proposal at the WTO. Photo: PHM South Africa

The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC 12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was supposed to take place from November 30 to December 3 this year, but it was cancelled at the last minute due to the discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Most of the mobilizations that had been planned by trade unions, civil society, and left parties at this time went ahead, but many of those who planned to attend them were not able to travel because of entry requirements, and travel bans that the EU and Switzerland introduced hours after the Omicron alert.

One of the things on the MC 12 agenda was the TRIPS waiver proposal, recognized by most as the best chance the world has to end the pandemic, and the civil society actions wanted to confront rich countries with the responsibility they bear for causing vaccine apartheid. As the EU, the UK, Norway, and Switzerland continue to oppose the waiver, People’s Health Dispatch spoke to Fatima Hassan, founder and director of Health Justice International, about how the waiver could reduce the inequities we have seen appearing from the beginning of the pandemic, and why it is about more than just vaccines.

People’s Health Dispatch (PHD): The MC 12 was taken as an important rallying point by movements from different backgrounds – trade unions, health activists, trade activists, all seemed to be getting ready to meet in Geneva at the time it was supposed to take place. Why is that?

Fatima Hassan (FH): It has been over a year that the world has been struggling with the pandemic. So the MC 12 was a chance to get back on the street and warn the world about the crisis that is going on, about how it has a lot to do with how vaccines have been distributed until now, and about who has had the upper hand in negotiations and conversation about vaccines.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director General (DG) of WTO, has actually been sitting in negotiations with Big Pharma companies when these things have been discussed. Why exactly? The WTO has stalled a lot of the conversations we should have had on the TRIPS waiver by now, and has instead been meeting with the producers. They have brought in the Walker Process, that’s formally all about a just response to the pandemic, but in reality it’s far from that. It doesn’t even mention the TRIPS waiver, which is the best concrete answer we have on the table.

That’s a serious problem, and we wanted to use the MC 12 to call them out on that. Also, it has to be said that the waiver doesn’t have to be passed by the MC, it can be passed at any General Council (GC) meeting, and those kinds of meetings happen more often. So this should also have been the space where we got to ask the WTO why exactly they are meeting again, why are they insisting on an MC, when they could pass the TRIPS waiver any time if they’re really committed to equity.

 

PHD: We’ve heard a lot about the TRIPS waiver over the past year, but could you walk us through its relevance for the situation we find ourselves in right now? What would it change, and can we even hope for it to be passed?

FH: Well, basically, the TRIPS waiver would act as an equalizer: Big Pharma would not get to decide any more, and that would make vaccines and other products available in more places. Right now, Big Pharma is largely calling the shots and stalling. Look at the case of Moderna, refusing to share know-how and prolonging the process or reverse engineering of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine that’s underway in South Africa. Look at Johnson & Johnson, who has been dragging its feet in negotiations for a year now. The waiver would put a stop to that. It would lift intellectual property (IP) barriers all over the world at the same time.

And we are not only talking about IP concerning vaccines, but Covid-19 diagnostics and treatments too. It’s not only vaccines that we need, we need ventilators, tests, and PPE too. We need the medicines. And the producers of those things will make it difficult to open up production to others because it hurts their profit. The last thing we need is to experience treatment apartheid after experiencing vaccine apartheid.

Lifting IP barriers would allow us to produce vaccines, equipment, and medicines in more places, it would allow us to make use of more production capacities and give us more options on the ground. So it’s important to hold on to this all-encompassing version of the TRIPS waiver instead of agreeing to the ones that look at only one aspect of the response. This is something that the US has done, for example, with their backing of the waiver only for vaccines. Passing that kind of proposal would mean that the industry would still be able to limit the production of other medical products, and we would still be far away from an overarching pandemic response. So what we need is the original TRIPS waiver proposal, and we need it now.

 

PHD: MC 12 was eventually cancelled after scientists from South Africa alerted the world about the Omicron variant. But before that, activists were already facing serious issues while they were trying to attend the meeting because of vaccine requirements and travel regulations that discriminated against people from the Global South. What was your experience with this?

FH: Yes, a number of people from the Global South would not have been able to travel anyway because of the requirements – and they were different requirements at different levels. You needed to produce a set of documents to enter Switzerland, but then the Geneva canton could ask something in addition to that, and a specific building could ask something else yet again. In some cases, entry depended not only on having a Covid-19 certificate to prove you have received two doses of the vaccine, but that you had actually received a third booster shot too. Who from the Global South can produce that? Because of the current distribution of vaccines, people in Africa have not had access to the first and second dose yet, let alone a third one.

And I think this really points to the situation of systemic inequity that has marked the pandemic. If we had all been vaccinated at the same time, there could have been more diverse participation. Let’s not forget that also, if we had been vaccinated at the same time, we wouldn’t be having all these variants. But even though it is very well known by now that the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries is leading to all sorts of discrimination and is prolonging the pandemic, they are still going ahead with it. We are still being told to wait until March, May, even June 2022 for more doses. They are telling people in the Global South it’s their problem if they didn’t secure enough doses by now, and that’s simply not true.

 

PHD: And since the TRIPS waiver still hasn’t been adopted and the discussions at the WTO will continue, what role do you expect the WTO to play in the pandemic response in the months to come?

FH: Well, first of all, I would be interested to learn why the WTO DG is sitting in negotiations with Big Pharma, because, you know, I’m not sure that’s something the WTO DG should be doing. The most important thing the WTO can do to help bring an end to the pandemic is to pass the TRIPS waiver – and they have gone out of their way to avoid it. So why are they pretending to care so much about equity, meeting producers, and all that, when they haven’t done the one thing they could have? No, I think the best thing we could hope for is that this pretense that WTO is somehow crucial for the pandemic response is simply dropped. They could do that one thing, and they’re dragging their feet with it. So they can’t pretend to be very dedicated contributors to this discussion, and should leave it to others to ensure that the pandemic recovery takes a more just course from now on.

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