The Covid-19 vaccine is administered to a health professional in Sao Paulo, Brasil on January 20, 2021. © 2021 Agência Brasil / Rovena Rosa

(São Paulo, March 9, 2021) - Brazil should support a proposal at an upcoming meeting of a key World Trade Organization (WTO) council to temporarily waive some intellectual property rights until widespread Covid-19 vaccination is in place globally, Human Rights Watch said today. The waiver is crucial to secure faster universal and equitable access worldwide to Covid-19 vaccines, a move that could potentially save thousands of lives.

The Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS – Council) will discuss the issue on March 10 and 11, 2021. The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has so far opposed the waiver. But Brazil is experiencing its worst Covid-19 surge since the pandemic started, with more than 265,000 people dead from the virus. Only 3.8 percent of Brazilians have received a first dose of a vaccine. Fiocruz, a government research institute, sent an alert on March 1st that 18 states have more than 80 percent of their intensive care units occupied and that there is an imminent risk that the healthcare system will collapse.

“Brazil should be on the right side of history, change course, and join the governments supporting temporary waiver of intellectual property rights,” said Anna Livia Arida, associate Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The waiver would help boost vaccine production, saving countless lives, and could also lead to a faster economic recovery, a prospect that is the stated priority of Brazil’s government.”

In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed waiving some provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), an international legal agreement between all WTO members.

The proposed waiver would allow all countries globally to collaborate on the Covid-19 response, including vaccine development and distribution, without being unduly hampered by the complexity of laws and restrictions governing intellectual property. One hundred countries and many hundreds of civil society organizations around the globe support the proposal.

But a handful of governments, including Brazil, have blocked the waiver proposal over the last five months. In that time, global Covid-19 deaths have more than doubled, from around 1 million deaths in early October to 2.5 million deaths in early March.

The waiver would allow more international collaboration in the manufacture of the vaccines and other medical products – without authorization from the companies that created them – and could speed production and availability of vaccines worldwide.

Prioritizing public health over intellectual property rules when facing a health emergency is permitted under global intellectual property rules and was reaffirmed by the Doha Declaration at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Brazil did just that in 2007 with a key anti-HIV drug, which allowed it to provide free universal HIV/AIDS treatment. That policy became a worldwide success story.

Brazil is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasized that all countries have a duty of international cooperation and assistance (article 2) to ensure universal equitable access to vaccines wherever needed.

Brazil has claimed that there is no need for a temporary TRIPS waiver because TRIPS already permits governments to relax rules to protect health. In practice, though, existing flexibilities under TRIPS are not sufficient for the expedited and global solution needed to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said. 

“Rich countries have used their financial clout to reserve enough – and in several cases, excess – doses for their own population, while Brazilians and billions of others wait down the line for live-saving vaccines,” Arida said. “Brazil should step up as it did with the anti-HIV drug, be a leader in international cooperation and assistance, and support a waiver that would speed up vaccine access for all.”