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A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Vancouver on March 11, 2021.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

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.

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Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

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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.

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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.

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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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