TRIPS waiver: Overview and background

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Public funding has paved the way for scientific developments to beat the virus – but now corporate property rights are threatening access to vital medicines and equipment and putting millions of lives at risk.

That’s why many governments – supported by unions and civil society – are calling for the WTO to waive intellectual property right provisions for vaccines, key medicines and medical supplies: because private profits must not be put ahead of public health.


The pandemic has demanded extraordinary sacrifices from workers around the world.

A Covid recovery will require all countries and all people to have access to affordable medicines, vaccine, diagnostics and other medical products. Yet the monopoly powers given to pharmaceutical companies by the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement will allow companies to artificially limit global supply and make extravagant profits and charge prices that could be prohibitive for most of the world.

Frontline health staff have worked tirelessly to ensure we overcome this crisis. They have endured dangerous conditions, often facing extended hours with little or no time off and without appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This has led to the needless deaths of thousands of workers who have paid with their lives due to a lack of safety.

A huge number of new front line staff will be required to deliver and administer the vaccine.

Pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to profit from the pandemic by enforcing monopoly power while everyone else has made efforts and sacrifices to overcome the crisis.

In early October, India and South Africa made a formal proposal to the World Trade Organisation for a “Waiver from Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention, Containment and Treatment of COVID-19”.

This has since then been endorsed by over 55 countries and received support from many more. Without the waiver, pharmaceutical companies will be able to prevent other manufacturers from producing COVID-19 vaccines and medicines, thus impeding scaling up of production.

WTO rules ensure big pharma has a monopoly over the market and can dictate prices even to governments, which will consume public finances required for a healthy recovery.

The WTO Agreement recognises that intellectual property rights can be waived in “exceptional circumstances”, which this pandemic presents. Experts advise that flexibilities contained in the TRIPS agreement are inadequate to address global needs, hence the need for a waiver.

The World Health Organization, UN Human Rights Experts, UNITAID and UNAIDS have supported the waiver. The international trade union movement, including IndustriALL Global Union, Public Services International (PSI) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) endorsed the proposal early on. More recently, UNI Global Union and Labour 20 have also endorsed it.

Trade unions can play a key role in supporting this waiver by ensuring national governments are aware that health-workers and other public services’ workers expect them to support the waiver.