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Global access to Covid-19 vaccines has been unequal. As of 7 January 2022, only 9% of people in low-income countries (having a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita below US $1,045) have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 77% in high-income states (GNI per capita above US$ 12,696).

Three-year waiver proposed

In October 2020, South Africa and India proposed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines be waived for three years, in an attempt to booster global vaccine manufacture. Intellectual property 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 certain period of time. South Africa and India’s position has gained the estimated backing of 100 other states. In principle, the United States also supports a waiver on IP rights relating to vaccines.

Opposition to a waiver

At the WTO, the waiver has been opposed by the UK and European Union, among other countries. They argue the intellectual property rights system has played a “positive role” in generating innovative vaccines against the virus and providing an incentive for further work to address new variants of concern. They have instead encouraged the voluntary licencing of vaccines, to allow others to manufacture doses. As of 2022, WTO talks are ongoing.

This paper describes the global inequalities in vaccine administration, the arguments put forward in both support and opposition to the waiver, and the other challenges that affect the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide. Section 3 provides a list of further reading on this issue.

The Library briefing, Covax and global access to Covid-19 vaccines, provides more on the international Covax initiative to procure and share vaccines with low- and middle- income countries (LMICs). The briefing, UK and G7 commitments to donate Covid-19 vaccines, provides details on the UK and other G7 countries pledges to donate vaccines to LMICs.


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