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Global access to Covid-19 vaccines has been unequal. As of 4 April 2022, only 12% 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.

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 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 has gained the reported backing of over 100 other states. The Biden Administration has also supported a waiver in principle on IP rights relating to vaccines.

UK and EU opposition

At the WTO, the proposal has been 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 licencing of vaccines to allow others to manufacture doses.

A compromise deal in 2022?

In March 2022, the news-site Politico published details of a draft compromise agreement between the EU, South Africa, India and the US.

This will provide a waiver on vaccines only, for three years. The right to manufacture will be restricted to countries that exported less than 10% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccine doses during 2021. China is therefore ineligible. Responses have been mixed, with criticisms that the proposal undermines IP rights or should be expanded to include Covid-19 tests and treatments.

What this briefing covers

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.

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.

Update log: 8 April 2022 added details of the compromise text

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