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

Last Updated May 6, 2021 at 4:34 pm PDT

Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

U.S. on Wednesday announced it was backing push to waive IP protections for COVID vaccines

Waiving patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines would mean countries could start making generic versions of the shots

Charities, advocates say they hope Canada will land on the 'right side of history'

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Canada’s international trade minister says the federal government will take part in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets.

The Trudeau government has been facing increasing pressure to follow the lead of the U.S. and back a proposal at the World Trade Organization(WTO).

In theory, a waiver would make it easier for developing countries to import the expertise, equipment and ingredients necessary to make their own vaccines, potentially expanding global production.

Related article: WTO mulling intellectual property waivers for vaccines

The pharmaceutical industry says a waiver won’t have the desired effect and would undermine the development of innovative drugs.

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

“Fight against big pharma, stand up to big pharma, and waive those patent protections,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is joining growing calls from charities and advocacy groups in the push to waive patent rights.

The United States announced on Wednesday that it is backing the push, which surprised and delighted progressive anti-poverty groups when it agreed to the negotiations.

Canada’s International Trade Minister, Mary Ng, confirmed the development on Thursday in the House of Commons, one day after she issued a statement that didn’t specifically call for this waiver.

Ng’s previous statement had said Canada will work with international partners and is actively supporting the WTO’s efforts to accelerate global vaccine production.

“Canada has always been, and remains, a strong advocate for equitable access to affordable, safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies around the world,” she wrote on Twitter.

“What’s happening now is some of the poorest countries in the world can’t afford to buy the vaccine, and they certainly can’t produce it,” Singh said on Thursday, adding the benefit would be global.

“We need to globally conquer this pandemic. We need to fight it together. And to do that, we need to support each other,” he added.

Diana Sarousi with Oxfam Canada says she hopes “Canada stands on the right side of history, and understands that this waiver is really a crucial first step in scaling up production.”

Related article: World mulls next step as US backs IP waiver on vaccines

Sarousi believes pharmaceutical lobbies may be causing hesitation.

“There is probably a bit of a fear of retaliation for coming out in favour of this waiver, and concerning how precarious vaccine supply is already,” Sarousi said ahead of the developments, Thursday.

She notes that while this change would not make an immediate difference, every day counts in this global pandemic and Canada should be standing up to make vaccines more widely available.

“We’re racing against time. These variants that we’re seeing emerge in India, in Brazil, they’re dangerous. And we can’t keep living in lockdowns,” Sarousi added.

Doctors Without Borders has also called on Canada, as well as other countries, to follow America’s lead, congratulating the U.S. on its decision to back the waiver on Wednesday.

“Countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver, such as European Union countries, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, and Brazil must now take action, too, and decide to put people’s health before pharmaceutical profits and waive IP on all COVID-19 medical tools, including vaccines,” a statement reads.

Negotiations continue at the WTO, and the proposal will only pass if there is a consensus, or a vote that has a two-thirds majority.