W.T.O. Agrees to Limited Relaxing of Patent Protections on Covid Vaccines

The member countries of the World Trade Organization on Friday reached a limited agreement to ease intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines, aiming to boost the supply for poorer countries.

The measure would make it easier for manufacturers in developing countries to override patents on the vaccines and export them for sale in other lower-income countries.

But the agreement, the outgrowth of an ambitious patent waiver proposed nearly two years ago, is arriving far too late and is far too modest in scope to meaningfully affect global vaccine supply, experts said.

“This doesn’t really move us beyond the status quo in any significant way,” said Mihir Mankad, a researcher who advises Doctors Without Borders in the United States on global health advocacy and policy issues.

A key limitation is timing. Production of Covid-19 vaccines by the major drug companies that invented them is now far outpacing demand. The primary obstacles suppressing vaccination rates in lower-income countries are challenges with distribution and getting shots in arms, not with supply itself.

The agreement does not apply to coronavirus tests and treatments, which experts said were the more urgent priorities at this point in the pandemic, and could see their global supply increased significantly by a relaxing of intellectual property protections.

In October 2020, with wealthy countries locking up orders for the Covid vaccines that would soon become available, India and South Africa drafted an ambitious waiver of intellectual property rights under the W.T.O.’s agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS.

A year ago, with poorer countries still facing severe vaccine shortages, the Biden administration came out in support of the proposal. The move was a significant departure from decades of U.S.-led opposition to easing intellectual property rules on medicines.

Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, heralded Friday’s deal as “a concrete and meaningful outcome to get more safe and effective vaccines to those who need it most.”

But experts said the proposal was weakened significantly over months of negotiations. They said they did not expect the final agreement to encourage manufacturers in developing countries to start producing Covid vaccines, in part because it does not address the trade secrets and manufacturing know-how that many producers would need.

The drug industry, which argues that robust intellectual property protections are crucial to innovation, has fiercely opposed the effort under the W.T.O. throughout the negotiations.

The industry’s main lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, sharply criticized Friday’s agreement. Stephen J. Ubl, the group’s head, called it one in a series of “political stunts” and said it “won’t help protect people against the virus.” He noted that the industry had already produced more than 13 billion Covid vaccine doses.

James Love, who leads Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit focused on intellectual property in medicine, said Friday’s agreement falls far short of a patent waiver, as the proposal before the W.T.O. was originally envisioned.

“It may read to some people like it’s some magical new flexibility,” he said. But the agreement is limited to “taking the most awkward way to do exports and making it less awkward,” he said.

Friday’s agreement clarifies and expands existing mechanisms allowing for compulsory licensing, in which governments override intellectual property restrictions to allow manufacture of medications, typically in emergency situations. But compulsory licensing has not been easy in the past.

“It’s just politically really, really difficult, and the countries that do try to do it are faced with a lot of pressure,” said Melissa Barber, a researcher who studies access to medicines at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Maybe this will make it easier, but I think those power dynamics aren’t going to change.”

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