Thursday, 9 December 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
86. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will request that the European Union support a waiver under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, at the meeting of the World Trade Organization from 30 November to 3 December 2021 to ensure that all persons can have access to the Covid-19 vaccines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59507/21]
131. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of his engagement with regard to pursuing existing flexibilities in the WTO's TRIPS agreement to allow for a waiver of intellectual property rights concerning Covid-19 vaccines, to facilitate universal and equitable access to vaccines. [56515/21]
153. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will advocate for a TRIPS waiver to ensure maximum roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [60854/21]
159. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment further to Parliamentary Question No. 36 of 2 November 2021, if he will report on his engagement at European Union and World Trade Organization level with regard to the waiving of intellectual property rights in respect of Covid-19 vaccines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [60796/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 131, 153 and 159 together.
Universal and equitable access to vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19 and governments in the developed world must do more to ensure it happens. The Government is a very strong supporter of vaccine equality in the world. Morally, we need to make sure the world is vaccinated. We were not able to defeat smallpox and polio on a national basis; it could only be done on an international basis. This is what we need to do with Covid as well. Any country with a population that is not fully vaccinated is a potential reservoir for reinfection. It is the right thing to do morally and also from the point of view of self-interest.
As the Deputy is aware, international trade is a competence of the European Union under the treaties and, in exercising that competence, the European Commission engages fully with member states, including Ireland, through a variety of committees, working parties and groups, including on intellectual property. As part of the EU, we are very strong advocates of what is called compulsory licensing. This would allow governments to license the production of vaccines on a generic basis, whether the pharmaceutical companies agree to it or not. It could be very useful for countries like South Africa and India, which have vaccine-making capacity, to be allowed to license the production of the vaccines in the plants in their countries, irrespective of whether the companies approve. That is what we, as part of the European Union, are supporting and advocating at present.
I have an open mind on the alternative suggestion of a TRIPS waiver. I have always said that if we receive a WTO proposal, we will examine it. That has not happened yet. The TRIPS waiver, just like compulsory licensing, will not result in any new vaccine plants being built or made operational, which means it will not be enough on its own. What is needed is a comprehensive response involving capacity-building, know-how, qualified scientists and technicians, capital, and experienced medicine and safety regulators. All those elements are needed to get vaccines from the laboratory into people's arms. That is why it is better to have governments and pharmaceutical companies working together to find a solution rather than trying to create conflicts between government and industry. I do not think that is the right approach. We need a global solution that is comprehensive, intelligent and workable and that does not disincentivise innovation.
To date, Ireland has contributed €7 million in funding to COVAX in 2021 and will donate 1.3 million vaccines this year to low-income countries as part of that programme, with more to come in 2022. The first 500,000 Irish doses donated through the facility reached Nigeria on 29 November, with further donations of Irish vaccines taking place in the coming weeks. In addition, Ireland has delivered on its commitment to donate 335,000 doses to Uganda. The Irish people have shown enormous generosity in donating through UNICEF's Get a Vaccine, Give a Vaccine programme, which I strongly support and endorse. The EU has committed 200 million doses to reach low and middle-income countries by the end of this year, mainly through the COVAX initiative, and is investing €1 billion to ramp up mRNA production capacity in Africa. As a Government, we have consistently opposed the export bans advocated by others, including some of those now advocating a TRIPS waiver.
The Tánaiste said the Government and the EU are very strong supporters of vaccine equality and want to find a solution to ensure it happens. The truth, however, is that the EU and the Government are an active barrier to solutions. Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO has said: "It's a tragedy and it's an abomination that today there are frontline workers going to work in Covid wards in many countries that still have not been vaccinated. That is a disgrace." Mary Robinson has stated: "The European Union represents the biggest roadblock to this effective solution to ramp up the supply of lifesaving vaccines." Each day, six times more booster shoots are being administered in high-income countries than first doses in low-income countries.
As the Tánaiste knows, there is a huge push for the TRIPS waiver.
It has come from so many organisations. More than 100 countries have asked for this, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. The nursing unions were the latest, with about 30 of them throughout the world, including the Vaccine Alliance and so on. In our country, 400 leading scientists have expressed a similar view. No progress has been made on this.
I welcome the figures the Tánaiste gave on vaccines. A total of 1.3 million vaccine doses will be given to low-income countries this year, and he might give us a breakdown of that. Nevertheless, he stated trade is a competence of the EU, but health is not. This is a health issue. Trade is subservient in this regard. He talked about not interfering with the entrepreneurial spirit but that too is questionable to me because all the vaccine production has been financed predominantly by, as I understand it, public money.
I fully agree with the Tánaiste that we need to invest in innovation and science and continue to incentivise that, given we all rely on innovation and investment in science when it comes to the research and development of the vaccines that are saving lives throughout the world. This is a worldwide pandemic, which is why it is so important that initiatives such as COVAX are happening and that we are donating 1.3 million vaccine doses to poorer countries. None of us will get out of this until all of us get out of it.
Is the Government proactive in examining ways of sharing intellectual property throughout the globe with countries such as India, which I understand has the capacity to produce large volumes of vaccines? What is the Government's position with regard to the coronavirus treatment acceleration programme, CTAP?
The EU is the biggest exporter of vaccines. While other countries such as the United States, on some sort of national security grounds, stopped vaccines being exported to developing countries, the EU exported as many vaccine doses as we made for ourselves. I acknowledge Sinn Féin is a Euro-critical party but that is going too far. The EU has exported more vaccine doses than any other major player in the world and Ireland has been part of that. We have donated 1.7 million vaccine doses and will do more in 2022.
I did not say anything about the entrepreneurial spirit, although I did say something about incentivising innovation, which is important. It is very possible that in 2022, we will turn to companies such as BioNTech, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and others and ask them to develop a vaccine to the variants and treatments for Covid. We cannot just dismiss concerns about disincentivising innovation. It is a serious matter that needs to be considered.
It is deeply insulting for those in low-income countries that the Tánaiste's response was patronising about the fact we are making donations and contributions. These countries are looking for the opportunity to provide for themselves and they are in a position to do it. We have prevented them previously, in the context of AIDS and other pandemics, and we are doing it again. It is simply disgraceful and completely out of step with the will, spirit and passion of the Irish people. The people would go for a TRIPS waiver in the morning, and the Tánaiste is letting them down.
I am really disappointed in the Tánaiste's response. COVAX has done so much but there has not been an assessment of whether it has met the need. Clearly, it has not because the figures speak for themselves. Just 8% of people in low-income countries will have received at least one dose by the end of 2021, compared with 76% for high-income countries. I have mentioned just some of the organisations that are crying out for a change of approach and for the TRIPS waiver to be considered as a matter of urgency. They are hardly doing that for the good of their health, which is probably a bad choice of words in the context of Covid-19. Moreover, there is no transparency regarding the deals being done bilaterally with individual pharmaceutical companies, and no acknowledgement of the vast sums of public money that have been used to incentivise, with an indemnity clause that is never ending, and none of this has ever been discussed. Will the Tánaiste address some of those issues and why we are not leading on the TRIPS waiver?
I can see where this is going and I am disappointed that, rather than having a rational debate and weighing up the pros and cons of options such as a TRIPS waiver or compulsory licensing, it will turn into-----
-----and engaging in personalised remarks. It is disappointing. I knew before I came to the Chamber that, rather than having a rational debate on the correct solution, it was going to turn into Deputies-----
This is just showboating, unfortunately. I wonder whether the Deputy is even capable of having a rational debate on the different options, such as compulsory licensing, the TRIPS waiver and others. What is required-----
I do not think the Deputy wants a debate at all. He just wants to make out he is the person who is virtuous and that we are nasty people looking after companies rather than people. It is just part of the political games his party plays and that is the truth of it. It is disappointing but, unfortunately, that is the alternative his party offers.
We all share the same objective, in my view, namely, to vaccinate our own population. Governments have a responsibility to look after their own population and citizens first, and that is what we are doing. We also have a wider responsibility, on a global level, to ensure we vaccinate the entire world because this virus will not be defeated until the world has been vaccinated. It is not a case of one or the other, of bad and good people or of governments against industry. We need people working together on this.