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Global access to Covid-19 vaccines has been unequal. As of 30 June 2022, 16% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared to 74% in high income states.  Africa continues to be the continent with the lowest vaccination rates: In March 2022, less than 15% of its population was fully vaccinated.

“Fully vaccinated” means an individual has received two doses or a single dose of a one-dose vaccine. Low-income countries are those that have a Gross National Income (GNI) per person below US$1,045, while high-income countries have a GNI per person above US$12,696.

This briefing sets out inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines, arguments for and against the proposed waiver, and details of the compromise text and reaction. It also signposts other challenges that affect the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.

Three-year waiver proposed, 2020

In October 2020, South Africa and India proposed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and related drugs and treatments be waived for at least three years. They argue this would allow more areas to manufacture vaccines and increase global supply. They cite the level of public investment in vaccines as one reason to share the technology.

Intellectual property (IP) rights are rights given to creators of work, which may take the form of an invention, industrial design, or trade secret, and usually give the creator an exclusive right over the use of their creation for a period.

South Africa and India’s position gained the reported backing of over 100 other states. The Biden Administration also supported a waiver in principle on IP rights relating to vaccines.

UK and EU opposition, 2020-2022

At the WTO, the proposal was opposed by the UK and European Union, among other countries.

They argue the IP rights system has played a “positive role” in generating innovative vaccines against Covid-19 and providing an incentive for further work to address new variants of concern. They have instead encouraged the voluntary licensing of vaccines to allow others to manufacture doses.

Compromise deal agreed, 2022

In June 2022, the WTO announced a compromise text (PDF) that gained consensus among its members, including the UK and EU. The proposal is narrower than the original, as does not currently cover diagnostics and therapeutics. They will be considered by the WTO later in 2022.

For five years, developing countries will be allowed to authorise the use of patented materials and ingredients for the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines without the consent of the rights holder to produce vaccines, for domestic and eligible markets. Rights holders will be compensated. Some charities have argued this does not go far enough, and some countries have called for it to be extended to wider related technologies this year. Some pharmaceutical companies have argued this will undermine innovation.

Update log:

8 April 2022 added details of the compromise text. 

13 July 2022 added details of new consensus text, agreed in June (section 2.3).

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