Watch the highlights of our recent event View now

Governance Area: Local governance

Patently necessary: taking health into our own hands

At long last, the World Trade Organization is slated to open formal discussions on intellectual property waivers to help developing countries in the fight against Covid-19.

This pragmatic and humane idea was first proposed 18 months ago at the height of the pandemic. The proposals have since been woefully diluted: indeed—in their current form—it would seem the WTO has finally achieved the consensus it was looking for, since, apparently, everyone hates them. Hidden in the folds of this fiasco, however, is an important lesson for the developing world.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, monopolies on the production of tests and medicines were a part of the problem of surviving it. We went from a situation in 2020 during which tests and treatments were in short supply to a situation in 2021 in which vaccines were being made in far smaller quantities than was possible. This led to shamefully unequal access to these essential tools of survival. While vaccine access generally improved towards the end of 2021, there are still glaring disparities. To date, 93% of all contracted mRNA vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNtech have gone to rich countries, according to data from Airfinity, a health analytics company. Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.

‘Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.’

The TRIPs waiver—named after an obscure but powerful rule that obligates WTO member countries to uphold pharmaceutical monopolies—was meant to solve this problem. As the initial proposal was deflected, objected to, or just outright blocked by rich countries over a period of 18 months, people around the world suffered and died. The international community should be ashamed of this failure. Nevertheless, we find ourselves where we are, on the eve of discussions regarding proposals that have been dramatically watered down. What are we to make of this moment?

The first thing to understand is that critics of the current proposals are right: the ideas first put forward 18 months ago were more comprehensive and would have enabled us to turn the tide on the pandemic far sooner. The original proposals asked for intellectual property rights on all crucial aspects of our survival—namely tests, treatments and vaccines—to be waived for the whole course of the pandemic. These demands would have covered our immediate need to ramp up testing and would have delivered far greater quantities of treatments to those in need much faster. Consider the case of Bangladesh, where Pfizer’s patent on Paxlovid does not extend. Beximco—a pharmaceutical company based there—was able to manufacture and deliver the drug a mere ten days after the US Food and Drug Administration approved it, saving thousands of lives.

‘By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.’

But, alas, the revised waiver proposal now under discussion at the WTO covers vaccines alone. This is perverse. By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.

No matter how flawed the revised TRIPS wavier proposal is, the potential it holds to prompt a wider discussion among WTO member countries is probably a good thing. For the first time in eighteen long months, there has been a measure of agreement, however inadequate, between key WTO players to move forward: an essential prerequisite for the WTO to move the proposal into formal multilateral discussions. So far, discussions on potential waivers have been bilateral, or between groups of similarly-inclined countries, which is to say they have been unproductive and unaccountable to the international community.

The outcome at the WTO next week is almost certain to disappoint public health activists. Some rich countries are intent on further watering down the proposals and perhaps suppressing them altogether. A wide section of international civil society believes the proposal at the WTO has no value, even as a starting point. They argue that the WTO is in effect supporting a global protection racket: formal permission from the world’s richest countries to the rest of the world to allow them—without fear of reprisals—to do what they are in fact legally entitled to in order to survive an emergency.

‘But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions.’

So, what if a decision could be taken at the level of the nation-state to simply roll back or even temporarily suspend patents, regardless of what’s decided at the international level? This would bring the immediate relief that developing countries need and arguably increase their bargaining power at the WTO. In September 2021, one country did exactly that: Brazil passed a law that went beyond even what the original TRIPs waiver proposal had asked for, and it did so with an overwhelming domestic majority and cross-party support. Even though the law was ultimately diluted by a Presidential veto, it remains in effect today and is perfectly permissible under the WTO’s own rules. This option, to create a legislative framework that supports increased supplies of tests, treatments and vaccines, and moreover, encourages their manufacture everywhere, is one that is open to all developing countries today.

Through this pandemic, we have heard much of the unfair way a majority of the world is being treated by a much smaller and wealthier minority. This situation deserves our outrage and attention. But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions. The mRNA vaccine technology of today will define the future of global health. Many in the developing world understand that suspending pharmaceutical monopolies is an integral part of securing our present and future wellbeing. But what is less widely understood is that developing countries can do a lot to fix these problems on their own—or better still in concert with others—without having to wait endlessly for permission to do so.

Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa.

A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform

Commonwealth Heads of Government decided to create an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to advise them on reform of the association at their meeting in Port-of-Spain in 2009.

This decision by Heads of Government was taken at a time when the world was – as it now still is – in the midst of an economic crisis. The old order of economic power was changing. Climate change showed signs of endangering global economic activity and the safety and livelihood of millions of people. It posed threats to the very existence of a number of countries. Terrorism, too, threatened the security of states and presented a serious challenge to international peace.

Heads of Government decided that in such a world, it was important to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and to make it more relevant to its times and to its people in the future. They made it clear that they wanted the Commonwealth to continue to be an important player in the world, drawing on its rich diversity to help build global consensus around the Commonwealth’s core values including peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality, economic development, and freedom of expression.

Download the report

Director-General joins committee led by Sir Malcolm Rifkind on future of Commonwealth Studies

The University of London has confirmed the membership of a Committee to conduct an inquiry into the future of Commonwealth Studies at the University.

The creation of the Committee, to be chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former UK Foreign Secretary, was announced late last year following a consultation about the future of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University’s School of Advanced Study. The Committee includes among its members the Foundation’s Director-General Dr Anne T Gallagher AO.

Dr Gallagher said:

‘The Commonwealth brings together almost a third of humanity and, in our present uncertain, fractured world, it deserves nurturing and support.

‘It is an honour to join Sir Malcolm and colleagues on this committee as we consider how the University of London can best continue to support the cultivation of a critical understanding of the Commonwealth; its complicated legacy; and its potential to contribute to a future based on justice and equality.’

Sir Malcolm Rifkind commented:

‘I am delighted that we have a Committee that could not be more experienced and committed to the welfare of the Commonwealth. We look forward to providing the University of London with our conclusions and recommendations on the future of Commonwealth Studies at the University.’

Committee Membership

  • Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Chair) – Former United Kingdom Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  • Lord Boateng – Former British High Commissioner to South Africa
  • Dr Anne Therese Gallagher, AO – Director-General: Commonwealth Foundation
  • Dr Nabeel Goheer – Assistant Secretary-General, The Commonwealth Secretariat
  • Professor Asha Kanwar- President and CEO: Commonwealth of Learning
  • Mr Michael Kirby AC CMG – Former Justice of the High Court of Australia
  • Lord Luce – Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham
  • Dr Joanna Newman – Chief Executive and Secretary-General: The Association of Commonwealth Universities
  • Sir Ronald Sanders – Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States
  • Mr Stephen Twigg – Secretary-General: Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA)

Committee Objectives

The Committee will have three key objectives:

  1. To consider future provision at the University of London for Commonwealth Studies in terms of focus, purpose, structure and functions
  2. To recommend partnerships to support scholarship in this area and ensure its relevance and impact;
  3. To identify potentially viable sources of sustainable funding beyond the University and short-term research grants.

Announcing the establishment of a Committee in December, Professor Wendy Thomson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London said:

‘Over the last two months, we’ve met with a range of stakeholders with Commonwealth affiliations who have shown a renewed interest in the future of the Institute and a commitment to supporting the study of the modern Commonwealth at the University. Sir Malcolm and the Committee will be able to explore a range of new and exciting partnerships.’

The Committee will invite submissions from interested organisations and individuals. These can be submitted directly to the Committee via its secretary, Dr Conor Wyer: conor.wyer@sas.ac.uk. The Committee hopes to conclude its work by the end of June of this year.

___

For media enquiries contact Leo Kiss via l.kiss@commonwealth.int.