Friday, 23 April 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Yesterday, there was an informal meeting of the World Trade Organization trade-related and intellectual property rules, TRIPS, council. Next week, there will be a formal meeting at which the WTO will decide on a proposal for a temporary TRIPS waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, which would allow global south countries to scale up production and access to vaccines. This proposal is being brought by the World Health Organization and over 100 countries. I ask the Minister of State the position Ireland is taking on that proposal and the advocacy and engagement we are having with the European Commission on the position it will take at that crucial meeting on 30 April.
Months ago, the head of the World Health Organization warned us of the dangers of catastrophic moral failure. We know from Oxfam that nations with 14% of the world's population had 53% of the vaccines. The distribution of vaccines is not the really crucial issue, however. The crucial issue is the fact there is a limitation on supply. That limitation is not natural. It is a choice to limit the manufacture and supply of Covid-19 vaccines to protect profits. It is an artificial scarcity and a choice.
That choice is having a consequence. Around the world, deaths are escalating. Yesterday, there were 2,000 deaths in India and 2,000 deaths in Brazil. In India, just 1% of the population has been vaccinated. Those are choices. People are dying younger and the consequences are more severe. It is important to note the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, in its report on the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, was clear that if we do not provide equitable access, it will prolong the pandemic.They also explicitly identified the TRIPS waiver as a mechanism which we should support, especially given that a similar waiver was crucial in combating AIDS and HIV in the past. It is important to remember that while a substantial portion of the world's population remains vulnerable to Covid-19, those are ideal grounds for the virus to develop new variants and grounds for experimentation for the virus. Those new variants will ultimately affect all of us. Many scientists say it could be six months or a year before there is a variant that is resistant to vaccines. That is unless we remove access to a significant portion of the world's population for this virus and its variants, something which we can choose to do if we scale up global manufacturing of vaccines. A significant portion of the money for developing these vaccines was public investment. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine received 97% public funding, Moderna was majority public funding, and Pfizer-BioNTech received €500 million from Germany alone. The public have invested in these vaccines and they must now be treated as a public good. This is one of the key moral decisions we will ever face.
There are structures in place through the Covid technology access programme, run by the World Health Organization, to ensure an appropriate, proper mechanism for the sharing of access and the roll-out of the know-how and technology. That is there and waiting. There is demand from more than half the world for us to take action. Will the Minister of State tell me two quick things? At yesterday's informal meeting, what position did Ireland push for on the TRIPS waiver? At the meeting on 30 April, will Ireland advocate for support for a TRIPS waiver? Will we contact the European Commission to ensure that it takes that position? I hope that the Minister of State is able to tell me that we will be doing the right thing.
I thank Senator Higgins for raising this topic and affording me the opportunity to address the House about this important and timely issue. I have listened carefully and agree with many of the points that Senator Higgins has raised. The Senator will undoubtedly be aware that international trade is a competence of the EU under the treaties. In exercising that competence at the WTO, the European Commission engages with member states, including Ireland, through a variety of committees and working parties, including on intellectual property. The Senator will also be aware that the EU's current position on the proposed waiver is that the WTO international agreement on trade-related aspects of international property rights, TRIPS, allows countries the flexibility to respond to the concerns raised by the proposers of the waiver. Specifically, the TRIPS agreement allows compulsory licensing, which is when a Government permits an entity to produce the patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner.
The EU has argued that global manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and the distribution networks are the main obstacles that need to be overcome. Increasing manufacturing capacity of vaccines may be better attained through voluntary licensing arrangements, by disseminating the technology and know-how of those who develop the vaccines. To this end, at EU level, the Commission has set up a task force for industrial scale-up of Covid-19 vaccine production. The task force is promoting partnership through matchmaking events. One such event took place at the end of March and identified 300 companies in the vaccine supply chain, including vaccine developers, manufacturing organisations and suppliers. The task force has engagement about the global supply chains and aims to launch new production sites in the EU to maximise production capacity.
I highlight that the EU position is that the intellectual property is not the primary obstacle to access to vaccines and instead argues that manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and distribution networks are the main obstacles that need to be overcome. It acknowledges that increasing manufacturing capacity of vaccines may be better attained through voluntary licensing arrangements.On that basis, I take this opportunity to strongly encourage pharmaceutical companies that have profited immensely and benefited from State investment to show leadership in this matter. They must seriously consider such licensing arrangements and voluntarily take the lead.
All of this is not to say that we, as a country, do not have a responsibility to speak out for what we believe is right. As other countries have reviewed their positions, it is incumbent on us to review ours, particularly in view of new and emerging information. This is a critical issue and it is morally right to ensure we have a fair and equitable system. I am firmly of the belief that no one is safe until everyone is safe. The past year has shown the necessity of working together towards a common goal and that, through collaboration, we can succeed in suppressing this virus. As a country, Ireland has always been a world leader in helping vulnerable people. An inequitable distribution of vaccines will lead to parts of the world falling behind. In an interconnected and global world, that is just not feasible. Therefore, we must, as a Government, feed back our concerns to the EU and the working groups. I certainly will take the concerns that have been articulated so passionately today by Senator Higgins to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Tánaiste.
The intellectual property right that needs to be waived under the existing TRIPS structure is not simply to do with the patents. It is also about the intellectual property relating to manufacturing know-how. The WHO, UNAIDS and others who have worked on previous global health crises tell us that the TRIPS waiver is needed. We must listen to them. We are all very proud of Dr. Michael Ryan and his work at the WHO. Let us show that we are listening to him and his colleagues, as global experts.
It is absolutely crucial that the decision on 30 April is to support a TRIPS waiver. If not, then we should be very clear that this will be a moral failure. It is not sufficient that we replace a politics of principle with a politics of patronage, where we might matchmake one person with a few other people, encourage voluntarism from companies and see if one country could get another country to talk. That is a piecemeal, charity-based approach to what is a matter of global and collective human rights and health priority. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is hearing what I am saying. To be clear, the world will be watching on 30 April.
I reiterate what I said already. I acknowledge that this is a critical issue and I believe it is morally right to ensure that, regardless of where people are in the world, they have access to vaccines. We need a fair and equitable system. I firmly believe, as does the Government, that no one is safe until everybody is safe. Apart from being the morally right thing to do, it is also right from an economic perspective. Protecting one half of the world while leaving the other half behind will do no good for anybody.
We have a role to play in this. The issue at hand is a competency of the EU but we have channels through which we can feed our concerns. As a Government, we need to do that. We need a fair and equitable distribution of vaccines across the world. The Government must stand up and ensure that happens.