Canada inches closer to waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines, amid political pressure
OTTAWA -- The federal government is edging closer to waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, as it faces increased pressure from members of Parliament of all party stripes.
Fielding questions about why Canada hasn’t already agreed to support lifting the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, as the U.S. announced on Wednesday, International Trade Minister Mary Ng said Canada would engage in these discussions.
“Canada will actively participate in negotiations to waive intellectual property protection, particular to COVID-19 vaccines, under the WTO TRIPS agreement…we have been a leader in the global effort to ensure there is equitable access to successful vaccine,” she said in the House of Commons on Thursday.
This is a stronger indication that the government is on track to follow in the footsteps of the Biden administration and the governments of nearly 100 other countries that back the proposal led by India and South Africa in October 2020 that would enable generic production of vaccines worldwide.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau offered little detail as to where Canada stands on the issue, only saying that the government supports obtaining more vaccines for developing countries, in part through donations to global vaccine sharing network COVAX.
Dozens of MPs from all parties have signed a letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to temporarily waive certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement.
“Simply, we need to eliminate all potential barriers to the timely access of affordable COVID-19 medical products, including vaccines and medicines, and scale up the manufacturing and supply of essential medical products. There is no question that normative intellectual property rights represent a significant potential barrier,” reads the letter issued Thursday.
"Opponents of the waiver proposal argue that patent monopolies are necessary to allow firms to recover their investments in research and development. However, given that COVID-19 vaccine development was primarily financed through public investment and advanced market commitments, we strongly believe this justification does not apply. Instead, immunization against COVID-19 should be considered a global public good fueled by public investment.”
The U.S. has received international applause for its support of the proposal, including from the World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who stated in a tweet it was a “monumental” move and a “powerful example” of American leadership in global health.
Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman told CTV News Channel's Power Play that Canada has “never rejected” the idea, but that it’s necessary to look at all angles and make decisions alongside international partners. The WTO functions through consensus, meaning all 164 member states must agree with the proposal before it’s put into action.
“Our position is to discuss this with our allies, to discuss this with our WTO partners, and to make sure that we proceed in a way that is going to achieve the goals of ensuring the continued development of these vaccines,” she said on Thursday.
Innovative Medicines Canada, which represents Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical giants, issued a press release on Thursday addressing its concerns with the TRIPS waiver.
“Waiving TRIPS Intellectual Property protections will not address the real issues of trade barriers, global supply chain bottlenecks, and scarcity of raw materials that are impacting the supply of COVID-19 vaccines,” the release states.
The industry association calls on the federal government and other countries to ensure any agreement addresses global vaccine access and doesn’t undermine vaccine production.
According to CTV News’ vaccine tracker, Canada had vaccinated 35.49 per cent of the population with one dose as of Thursday afternoon. Comparatively, India, which is facing a horrific third wave of the pandemic, has vaccinated only 9.4 of its population, and a handful of other developing countries haven’t administered a single dose.
Global health experts continue to express their concerns over vaccine nationalism and remind governments that the virus will continue to flourish until all corners of the globe have equitable access to vaccines.