by Anika Jain (’22) | March 29, 2021
On the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 quarantine, the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed again to approve the relinquishment of intellectual property rights for the COVID vaccine. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property, also known as the TRIPS Agreement, is an international legal agreement between the members of the WTO that grants them the ability to extend intellectual property rules if they wish. The proposal to waive the TRIPS Agreement, co-sponsored by 57 nations, was blocked by the joint efforts of major Western powers, including the USA, UK, and EU. The only developing nation to also reject the proposal was Brazil. This blockage is especially devastating for nations in the Global South who have been struggling to acquire the rights to import and manufacture affordable COVID vaccines. Once again, the West’s power and influence prove to be insurmountable.
In early March, the U.S. Chamber of Congress warned WTO’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, not to “distract” herself with proposals advocating for suspending intellectual property protections in order to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide. In Congress, some lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders, have been urging President Biden to revoke the United States’s opposition to the proposal, which was previously set by President Trump. Many Democrats in the House of Representatives have called upon the Biden administration to support the proposal. But despite efforts from individuals such as Representative Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, and the 400 advocacy groups from Doctors Without Borders, Biden has yet to reverse his predecessor’s position.
In response to the rejection of the proposal, many people were infuriated and called for a People’s Vaccine in order to distribute medication and treatment to as many people as possible, as soon as possible. Just as this virus crosses borders, so should the vaccine. “It is unconscionable that amid a global health crisis, huge multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritize profit by protecting their monopolies and driving up prices rather than prioritizing the lives of people everywhere, including in the Global South,” said Sanders.
In the WTO meeting, South African representatives compared the current pharmaceutical conglomerate practices to those resulting in the lack of treatment in developing nations during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that claimed 11 million lives in Africa alone. South Africa and India have been the main advocates for waiving the TRIPS Agreement in the past year. Thus far, over 2.6 million people have died from COVID-19 worldwide, of which half a million are from the United States. One lesson from the past year is incredibly clear: we need empathy and compassion in order to overcome this pandemic.
Currently, the WTO is scheduled to meet again twice next month for further discussion. Will the US continue to uphold Western imperialism and impose political shackles upon the Global South, subjecting them to poverty and oppression? Imperialism and colonialism are evolving, but the method of destabilizing countries and hurting their civilians to keep countries in poverty and extract their resources has remained the same. Now, our country has the opportunity to be a real game changer and offer a helping hand to countries that need affordable healthcare and COVID vaccinations.
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