Canada agrees to take part in WTO talks to waive patent protections on vaccines

Vaccine stock image
Vaccine stock image

Canada agreed Thursday to join World Trade Organization talks on waiving the rules that protect vaccine trade secrets ​– a measure drug companies and a number of world leaders say would only slow down production.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng broke the news during question period in the House of Commons, putting Canada more squarely onside with the United States, which made a similar commitment Wednesday.

But it followed a confusing 24-hour window that left unclear whether Canada, despite full-throated expressions of support for the U.S. decision, would be willing to sit down at the negotiating table.

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In theory, a waiver to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, would make it easier for developing countries to import the expertise, equipment and ingredients necessary to make their own COVID-19 vaccines.

Critics, however, call the idea wrong-headed, citing the glacial pace of WTO talks, the need for a broad consensus, the complexities of vaccine manufacturing and the pharmaceutical business model that helped develop the vaccines in the first place.

“We will actively participate in negotiations to waive intellectual property protection particular to COVID-19 vaccines under the WTO agreement on TRIPS,” Ng said in response to a question from New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Ng did not elaborate on whether Canada supports the specific idea of a waiver. She tweeted Wednesday that Canada is “actively supporting the WTO’s efforts to accelerate global vaccine production and distribution.”

“We look forward to working with the US on finding solutions to ensure a just and speedy global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The One Campaign, a progressive anti-poverty group that has had kind words for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the past, initially called Canada “oddly absent” from the discussion.

But they changed their tune after Ng confirmed plans to take part in the talks.

“I think it caught everybody by surprise, the announcement (Wednesday) in the U.S. … but it’s gratifying and encouraging to see this step,” said Stuart Hickox, director of the group’s Canadian branch.

But Canada could be doing a lot more, Hickox said, including spelling out how it intends to share what will eventually be a surplus of doses.

Need for consensus

“No other country has secured as many doses per capita as Canada has; we’re going to be sitting on tens of millions of surplus doses in no time at all,” he said.

“We could be saying right now how we plan to share those back, and it won’t affect our domestic vaccine rollout at all … we’ve ordered more than we can ever use.”

Whether a waiver would have the desired impact also remains an open question, as does whether it will ever see the light of day, given the WTO’s need for a 164-country consensus around the negotiating table.

Bloomberg reported Thursday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes a waiver would slow down existing production and undermine the incentives that spur the development of new drug treatments.

Britain and Switzerland are also opposed.

Intellectual property protection “is a crucial element for a thriving life sciences sector,” the pharmaceutical lobby group Innovative Medicines Canada said in a statement.

“The proposed waiver … would be a disappointing step that will create greater uncertainty and unpredictability in the production, quality and availability of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Other medical experts say a waiver would take too long, and the developed world should focus instead on ramping up existing production.

“I think it’s modest compared to the other big things that we need,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the school of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told MSNBC.

“Loosening the patents is maybe a long-term issue, but it’s not going to address how we vaccinate the world’s low- and middle-income countries over the next year or so.”

But Hickox said there’s value in the signal sent by the U.S. and Canada, which drives home one of the universal truths of the COVID-19 pandemic: that it won’t end anywhere until it ends everywhere.

“I really think that the most important part of what happened Wednesday in the U.S., and now we’re seeing in Canada, is that a tone has been set,” he said.

“It was important to say that this isn’t working out the way that it should, that something needed to be done to make sure that more people had access to these doses.”

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