Minister says State should show leadership on equitable global vaccine distribution

WTO to decide on temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines

Ireland needs to show leadership to ensure equitable global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines a Government Minister has warned ahead of a World Trade Organisation (WTO) decision on a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for the jab.

Minister of State for Trade Promotion Robert Troy was speaking in advance of a crucial meeting on April 30th to decide on the waiver which would allow developing countries to access and manufacture Covid-19 vaccines.

The European Commission represents all EU states including Ireland on trade issues and Mr Troy acknowledged the EU’s current position that “increasing manufacturing capacity of vaccines may be better attained through voluntary licensing arrangements”.

He said the Commission had set up a task force for industrial scale-up of Covid-19 vaccine production, which is “promoting partnership through matchmaking events”.


But he said Ireland must raise its concerns with the EU on what is a “critical issue and it is morally right to ensure we have a fair and equitable system. I am firmly of the belief that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

He added: “As a country, Ireland has always been a world leader in helping vulnerable people. An inequitable distribution of vaccines will lead to parts of the world falling behind,” which should not be allowed to happen.

Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins had warned that if the decision does not support a waiver on vaccine intellectual property rights "we should be very clear that this will be a moral failure.

“It is not sufficient that we replace a politics of principle with a politics of patronage, where we might matchmake one person with a few other people, encourage voluntarism from companies and see if one country could get another country to talk.

“That is a piecemeal, charity-based approach to what is a matter of global and collective human rights and health priority.”

A WTO international agreement known as Trips (trade-related aspects of international property rights) allows compulsory licensing, where a Government allows the production of a patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner.

When Ms Higgins raised the issue in the Seanad this week she said the waiver should be supported pointing out that “a similar waiver was crucial in combating AIDS and HIV in the past”. She said the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine received 97 per cent public funding, Moderna was majority public funding, and Pfizer-BioNTech received €500 million from Germany alone.

The public had invested in the development of Covid-19 vaccines and “they must now be treated as a public good”, she added.

The NUI Senator reminded the House that “the head of the World Health Organization warned us of the dangers of catastrophic moral failure.

“We know from Oxfam that nations with 14 per cent of the world’ population had 53 per cent of the vaccines,” she said, adding that just 1 per cent of India’s population had been vaccinated in a country which had experienced record rates of the virus and 2,000 deaths in a single day, with similar death rates in Brazil.

“The distribution of vaccines is not the really crucial issue, however,” she added. “The crucial issue is the fact there is a limit on supply. That limit is not natural. It is a choice to limit the manufacture and supply of Covid-19 vaccines to protect profits. It is an artificial scarcity and a choice.”

Mr Troy agreed that “an inequitable distribution of vaccines will lead to parts of the world falling behind. In an interconnected and global world, that is just not feasible. Therefore, we must, as a Government, feed back our concerns to the EU and the working groups”, dealing with the issue as the WTO prepares for the April 30th meeting and decision.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times