The meeting, meant to kick off in Switzerland on Monday, will be held in March “if conditions allow it,” the Geneva-based agency said Monday.
In the meantime, those urging the temporary suspension of pharmaceutical companies’ right to keep secret their coronavirus vaccine recipes are trying to maintain the pressure. The coalition of nursing unions — representing more than 2.5 million health-care workers from 28 countries — wrote a letter to Tlaleng Mofokeng, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to health. Their efforts were coordinated by Maryland-based Global Nurses United and the Progressive International, an advocacy group based in Washington state.
Opponents argue that these patents need to be protected to preserve the profits of pharmaceutical companies and their incentives for future research and development. If a waiver were to be passed, it would still take months and even years for middle- and low-income countries to build up the capabilities to produce the vaccines.
The nurses coalition called on the U.N. special rapporteur “to urgently undertake” a mission to the WTO to investigate the petition’s facts and “find that which we know to be true: These countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients — and caused the loss of countless lives — of nurses and other caregivers and those we have cared for.”
The letter also noted that the unequal distribution of vaccines “provides for the possibility for the development of new variants.”
The complaint singled out the European Union, Britain, Norway, Switzerland and Singapore as “vigorously blocking or delaying” a proposal on the matter put forward by India and South Africa in 2020.
The debate centers on a technical interpretation of TRIPS, the WTO’s 1995 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which helps to settle related trade disputes.
Supporters of a waiver argue that coronavirus vaccines are covered under a 2001 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, that clarified “that the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent member governments from acting to protect public health.” That agreement came about after years of lobbying to lower the cost of antiviral medications for HIV/AIDS: When the drugs first came on the market in the 1990s, they were too expensive for most people in hard-hit sub-Saharan Africa to access. The 2001 deal helped to change that.
This time around, India and South Africa’s proposal has gained increasing global traction — though major impediments remain, including opposition from wealthy countries that have bought or produced a large share of the vaccines. (The waiver would include a mechanism for compensating the companies affected.)
In May, the Biden administration changed course and said it supported a petition to ease patent protections for vaccines. But Washington did not specifically endorse India and South Africa’s proposal, and little progress has been made in the months since.
Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, co-president of National Nurses United, which signed the letter, told The Washington Post that given the recent emergence of the omicron variant, she hopes that the people in decision-making positions will “react quickly.”
Noting that only a small group of nations strongly opposes the measure, Triunfo-Cortez said the coalition is “putting the burden on the World Trade Organization to do the right thing.”
The WTO works on consensus, meaning that all 164 members must agree on a measure.
Only around 3 percent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, according to Gordon Brown, the WTO’s ambassador for global health financing and a former British prime minister, even as many Western countries begin rolling out booster shots.
Shortages of diagnostic tests and personal protective gear also have plagued low-income countries throughout the pandemic.
“Given the severely limited access to the covid-19 drugs, diagnostics and vaccines needed to save lives, it’s truly demoralizing that some governments are opposing an initiative like the TRIPS Waiver which could have such a positive impact on how low- and middle-income countries are able to tackle this pandemic,” Reveka Papadopoulou, president of the Doctors Without Borders operational center in Geneva, said in a statement.