Canada must support global access to COVID-19 vaccines at WTO

Canada’s unwillingness to endorse a proposal at the World Trade Organization to make COVID-related vaccines, treatments, and technologies more affordable and readily available for all countries is a glaring example of this mismatch between words and deeds.

Ottawa (10 March 2021) — Nearly 40 prominent organizations have written an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, urging Canada to support a proposal at the World Trade Organization that would make COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and technologies more affordable and readily available for all countries.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) joins the Trade Justice Network, Amnesty International, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the many labour, human rights, health, and other civil society groups in signing the letter.

NUPGE has previously reported here on this issue. NUPGE has been calling for access to vaccines for all in Canada and globally.

Letter calls on Canada to support intellectual property rights waiver

Here is the full text of the letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the beginning of the pandemic, world leaders have repeatedly spoken of the need for global solidarity to get us all through this once-in-a-century health crisis. You were among the first to call for global equal access to COVID-19 health technologies. But as time passed, calls for unity have been followed by a disappointing lack of commitment
by many wealthier nations, including Canada.

Canada’s unwillingness to endorse a proposal at the World Trade Organization to make COVID-related vaccines, treatments and technologies more affordable and readily
available for all countries is a glaring example of this mismatch between words and deeds.

In October 2020, South Africa and India made a joint proposal to temporarily waive certain obligations under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual
Property Rights (TRIPS) until the COVID-19 emergency is over. The waiver would mean WTO member states would not have to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights covering COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies such as masks and ventilators.

This waiver proposal is not a panacea. But with these barriers and restrictions removed, WTO member states and the scientific community can continue working on developing
and distributing new diagnostics, vaccines, medicines, and medical supplies, without fear of litigation risk and trade sanctions under the TRIPS Agreement.

As it stands now, vaccine technology and knowledge are being treated as private property by pharmaceutical corporations, despite much of this research being paid for
by over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money. As communities across the world adapt to the “new normal” of the pandemic, it’s business as usual for pharmaceutical
corporations. With their WTO-protected exclusive rights and monopolies, pharmaceutical companies are able to charge higher prices and inhibit the generic
competition demonstrated time and again as key to bringing and keeping prices down, particularly for low- and middle-income countries.

In the context of the ongoing public health emergency, the result is that rich countries such as Canada are securing private contracts with vaccine makers while many
developing countries haven’t seen any vaccine doses at all. While Canada has ordered enough doses of the multiple available vaccines to inoculate its population many times
over, some estimates say that vaccines will not become available to a fifth of the world until 2022.

The proposal at the WTO to temporarily waive certain TRIPS Agreement restrictions would help break down barriers to scaling up the manufacture and supply of lifesaving
COVID-19 medical tools across the world. Canada has maintained that it has not rejected this proposal. But Canada has also not said yes, joining Australia, Brazil, the EU,
Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. in obstructing the waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council.

Canada misleadingly claims that existing flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement, such as those for the issuance of compulsory licences to manufacture patented medicines (as
affirmed in the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health), are sufficient. However, as Doctors Without Borders and other health advocates have
pointed out, these flexibilities are only accessible on a case-by-case basis that can take years to settle with patent-holding firms or foreign governments. Responding to COVID-
19 requires goods subject to exclusive patent and other IP claims and restrictions to become accessible and affordable now.

Last month, more than 400 organizations in the United States called on President Joe Biden to support the waiver at the TRIPS Council. More than 100 civil society
organizations have called on the European Parliament to also support it, as have many EU parliamentarians themselves. The Director-General of the World Health Organization
is calling on member states, including Canada, to support the waiver. Canadian civil society organizations and labour unions have been making similar calls for months.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe global health and economic crisis in generations. In Canada, and around the world, the virus has disproportionately impacted
women, migrant and lower-wage workers, racialized and other marginalized groups. Millions of lives have been lost to this virus.

Everyone, everywhere needs out of this pandemic as quickly as possible. Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives — not an obstacle. We call on the Canadian
government to support the waiver now.

Find the list of signatories here.

How to take action

Individuals can join the call on the Canadian government by signing this petition. It calls on the Canadian government to support the TRIPS waiver at the WTO. 


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE