Canada and other wealthy countries are continuing to stall a five-month-old proposal for a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents, sparking criticism that they are defending pharmaceutical companies at the expense of poorer countries.
The proposal, supported by more than 100 countries in the developing world, was again blocked at a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva this week. Further talks are scheduled for next month, but there are few signs that the wealthy countries will give in.
The proposal, originally put forward by South Africa and India last October, would loosen the restrictions on patents for COVID-19 products, including vaccines, so that production can be expanded. The vast majority of vaccinations so far have been in wealthy countries, while most poorer countries have vaccinated few or none of their people.
Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).
- Also known as: Comirnaty
- Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
- Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
- Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.
- Also known as: SpikeVax
- Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
- Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
- Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.
- Also known as: Vaxzevria
- Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
- Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
- Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.
- Also known as: Janssen
- Approved on: March 5, 2021
- Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
- Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.
How many vaccine doses do I get?
All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.
Supporters of the patent waiver have suggested the proposal should at least be allowed to move to the next step of the WTO process, where a draft could be negotiated. The WTO meetings, however, usually operate by consensus, and there was no agreement this week to move to that step.
Canada has repeatedly said it is merely asking questions about the patent waiver proposal, rather than opposing it. But a leading drug-company lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, in a letter to the U.S. government this month, publicly named Canada as one of several countries opposing the waiver.
At the WTO meeting this week, South Africa accused the Canadian government of hypocrisy for opposing the patent waiver after introducing its own emergency legislation in March, 2020, to allow it to suspend patent rights and authorize the immediate licensing of vaccines or drugs. The emergency legislation remained in effect for six months, but Ottawa never used it.
In its official response to Canada and other critics of the patent waiver at the WTO meeting, South Africa said they were continually demanding evidence that had already been provided – a “classic tactic to stall matters,” it said.
Youmy Han, press secretary for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, denied Canada is rejecting the waiver proposal. “We are committed to finding consensus-based solutions,” she told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail on Thursday.
“Canada welcomes any further information on these questions, and continues to engage WTO members … in order to identify specific IP-related barriers,” she said.
A coalition of health activists, known as the People’s Vaccine Alliance, held demonstrations in support of the patent waiver on Thursday at the offices of pharmaceutical companies in the United States, South Africa and other countries.
The alliance, in a statement on Thursday, said the wealthy countries at the WTO are defending the profits of pharmaceutical companies and ignoring the pleas of the developing world. Many people will die as a result, it said.
In a letter to vaccine manufacturers, the alliance said the companies had received billions of dollars in government funding to support their development of the COVID-19 vaccines, yet there are still acute shortages of vaccines and limited sharing of vaccine technology.
Other groups voiced similar concerns after the two-day WTO meeting ended on Thursday. “We are once again disappointed that a small group of countries keeps stalling the process and denying the need to urgently move forward with this landmark waiver on intellectual property during the pandemic,” said Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy adviser for an access campaign at Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
In Ottawa, the federal New Democrats said the government’s stand at the WTO will damage the global recovery from the pandemic. “If the world does not work together on this effort to vaccinate underdeveloped countries, 30 per cent more people will die and dangerous variants will develop,” said Heather McPherson, the NDP critic for international development.
In a proposal submitted to the WTO this week, Canada and six other countries called on the trade organization to convene discussions with vaccine manufacturers to encourage licensing agreements and technology transfers.
In their proposal, they acknowledged there is an urgent need to promote the rapid and equitable distribution of vaccines. “The scaling up of vaccine production must be a fundamental priority, as no one is safe until everyone is safe,” they said.
The concept of voluntary technology transfers and licensing deals, dubbed the “Third Way,” has gained growing support in recent weeks, including from the WTO’s new director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister and current chair of a global vaccine alliance, who has said the issue of vaccine distribution will be a top priority for her. Canada has argued this proposal would provide a broader range of solutions than the patent waiver.
But groups such as MSF have maintained the voluntary measures won’t produce the needed improvements in vaccine access. “These governments know that this will not be sufficient,” Dr. Hu said.
Oxfam’s health policy manager, Anna Marriott, said the WTO meeting this week was “a massive missed opportunity to speed up and scale up the production of lifesaving vaccines worldwide.”
Oxfam has estimated the world’s wealthy countries are together vaccinating their citizens at a rate of one person a second. Yet these countries are “siding with a handful of pharmaceutical corporations in protecting their monopolies against the needs of the majority of developing countries who are struggling to administer a single dose,” Ms. Marriott said in a statement.
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