WTO kneels to Big Pharma at Ministerial Conference

Despite a global campaign calling for a suspension of intellectual property barriers to dealing with Covid-19, the WTO failed the world and adopted a woefully inadequate text at MC12.

After more than 6 million deaths and a two-year global campaign for a waiver of intellectual property barriers to deal with Covid-19, the WTO failed the world and kneeled to big pharma at its Ministerial Conference that concluded in Geneva this morning.

Instead of adopting the comprehensive TRIPS waiver proposed by more than 100 countries, the WTO adopted a woefully inadequate text that does little more than clarify existing rules of the TRIPS agreement. The watered down text was adopted because the EU, UK and Switzerland sided with big pharmaceutical companies and blocked the proposed text for almost 2 years.

In recent years the WTO has been unable to agree to any outcomes, with countries in the global south demanding that the development agenda be addressed. The WTO is now celebrating the TRIPS text as a hard won compromise, breathing new life into a moribund institution. The reality is that this outcome, 2 years into the pandemic, proves that the WTO is a barrier to global health, to workers rights, to justice and to solidarity.

The WTO is incapable of responding to a crisis or putting frontline health workers and people over profits. We are therefore joining close to 300 unions and civil society organisations condemning the European Union, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and United States for their roles in blocking the waiver. We now call on governments to act outside of the WTO to ensure everyone has access to the COVID vaccines, diagnostics and medicines necessary to save lives and end the pandemic.

See the joint statement below.


Governments Must Break Big Pharma-WTO Stranglehold on Access to Health by Taking Immediate Action to Prioritize Human Lives Over Pharmaceutical Monopolies

More than two years into a pandemic that has killed 15 million people, World Trade Organization intellectual property barriers shamefully remain a deadly obstruction limiting global access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests & treatments. A few wealthy countries promoting pharmaceutical corporation interests have been able to block the use of the WTO’s waiver mechanism to temporarily suspend such barriers despite more than 100 WTO member countries supporting a waiver. The WTO’s notoriously exclusionary, oppressive processes have been deployed instead to force through a sham text that will not improve global access to COVID-19 medicines because it not only fails to remove IP obstacles but outrageously adds further constraints to existing WTO flexibilities for medicines production. This outrageous situation underscores that governments must take immediate actions to bypass the WTO's prioritization of pharmaceutical monopolies over human lives.

By acting on behalf of pharmaceutical interests and blocking WTO removal of intellectual property (IP) barriers to global vaccines, tests, and treatment access, the European Union, Switzerland and United Kingdom have betrayed the billions of people worldwide who still need access to lifesaving vaccines, medications, and diagnostics. In failing to deliver on a vaccine waiver for which it announced support and blocking the inclusion of treatments and tests, the United States has also turned its back on a planet desperate for the COVID pandemic to end.

The failure to temporarily waive the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as demanded by the vast majority of the world’s countries and by public health experts and health workers, generic medicine manufacturers, human rights advocates, faith leaders, labor unions, community groups, scores of Nobel laureates and former heads of state, and even the Pope spotlights just how broken and dangerously out-of-touch the WTO remains. 

Health needs cannot be subservient to pharmaceutical monopolies’ profits. In response to the ongoing failure to adopt a temporary waiver of pharmaceutical IP monopolies on COVID medical countermeasures, civil society organizations around the globe are calling on governments to:

  1. Pledge not to use the WTO’s and other trade and investment agreements’ dispute mechanisms or other means in an attempt to stop or dissuade countries from producing, distributing or using medical technologies or from sharing information on how to do so regardless of WTO and free trade agreement IP rules;

  2. Take every step necessary to save lives and end the pandemic, including by fully using the WTO’s existing, albeit limited, flexibilities;

  3. Circumvent the WTO’s pharmaceutical monopoly rules when possible and outright defy those rules when needed.

This united call comes as the WTO concludes its most significant decision-making meeting since the start of the COVID-19 — the 12th WTO ministerial Conference — without agreeing to temporarily remove WTO IP rules that restrict the production and supply of COVID vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics

For roughly 20 months, the obstinance and bullying of a few very economically-powerful WTO member states was allowed to run roughshod over the wishes of more than 100 countries to waive WTO TRIPS obstacles to global access to COVID-19 medical tools. The TRIPS waiver text proposed in October 2020 by South Africa and India enjoyed cosponsorship from 65 WTO member countries, but outrageously negotiations on this text were never allowed. Under the WTO’s unacceptable processes, a text written by the WTO Secretariat and supported only by the main waiver-blocker, the European Union, was pushed forward to be railroaded through the Ministerial. History will harshly record the WTO’s contribution to COVID vaccine, treatment and test apartheid. 

The WTO’s threat to global access to medicines did not start with COVID-19. For decades, the WTO has steadfastly refused to put shared global priorities like saving lives and ending pandemics ahead of the narrow profit and power-seeking interest of pharmaceutical monopolies. This was clear at the turn of the century during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has only become even more clear with the WTO’s unconscionable inaction during the COVID crisis today.

The WTO’s draconian IP rules have already contributed to prolonging the current pandemic and, if countries can’t get these rules out of the way, they will continue to contribute to massive public health, economic and social damage during future pandemics as well. And pandemics are not the only matters of concern.  Billions of people lack access to lifesaving medicines that prevent, treat and cure illnesses because intellectual property regimes distort research priorities, create scarcity by artificially restricting supplies, and allow excessive pricing and inequitable distribution that affects the poor and people living in lower-income countries. Countries that don’t accept these rules are subjected to trade threats and repercussions, undermining their own sovereign processes and rules.  This cannot continue.

The world must not allow the deadly vaccine apartheid that characterized the first generation of COVID vaccine manufacturing and distribution to be recreated when it comes to COVID diagnostics, treatments and second-generation vaccines.  With the WTO process failing to suspend WTO IP rules to prevent this ongoing and disastrous injustice, governments who are also WTO member states must now act in good faith outside of the WTO’s structures.

Click here to access the statement with the list of signatories.

Join the campaign

Right now governments across the world are negotiating a new Pandemic Treaty at the World Health Organization, which will shape the Covid-19 recovery and determine how we deal with future crises. Yet this Treaty can only be effective if it responds to the voices of health workers, whose experiences and perspectives through this pandemic must be at the heart of this process.