In the lead-up to the upcoming WTO ministerial meetings, key figures in the global movement for vaccine justice are calling on the Canadian government to change its position on lifting intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines and other tools.
For more than 18 months, Canadian trade officials have refused to back the call for making vaccines, tests, and treatments available globally as public goods.
The open letter is signed by prominent Canadians Stephen Lewis and Naomi Klein, as well as renowned international advocates Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize winning economist), Fatima Hassan (Health Justice Initiative) and Achal Prabhala (AccessIBSA project).
Other Canadian signatories include Dr. Joanne Liu (former International President, MSF), Dr. Madhukar Pai (Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health), Ketty Nivyabandi (Amnesty Canada), and Christina Warner (The Council of Canadians).
The letter is addressed to Prime Minister Trudeau and was initiated by the Council of Canadians.
“Over the last two years, monopolies on life-saving vaccines held by a handful of pharmaceutical companies, and the shameful vaccine nationalism and hoarding of wealthy countries, have caused immeasurable suffering and millions of avoidable deaths,” the signatories write. “It is time Canada broke with pharmaceutical monopolies and the failed charity-based model that have hobbled the global fight against the pandemic.”
More than 100 other countries have joined the call for a comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rights. But WTO negotiations have been stalled for the last year and a half “by the intransigence of a handful of wealthy countries—including Canada,” the letter points out.
“There is disturbing evidence that the pharmaceutical industry has been behind Canada’s quiet obstructionism at the WTO,” the signatories further write. “Your government has long committed to the principles of fairness and equity. But in practice, a few pharmaceutical companies have been given free rein to use their monopolies to deny access to their life-saving products around the world, to the detriment of our collective well-being.”
The letter also urges the Trudeau government to reject the flawed “compromise” proposal that the EU has placed at the centre of upcoming WTO negotiations.
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
We are at a crucial turning point. As delegates from around the globe gather at the upcoming ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), you and other world leaders have a unique opportunity—and obligation—to help end the pandemic.
Over the last two years, monopolies on life-saving vaccines held by a handful of pharmaceutical companies, and the shameful vaccine nationalism and hoarding of wealthy countries, have caused immeasurable suffering and millions of avoidable deaths. Going forward, persistent inequalities in accessing tests, treatments, and updated vaccines risk prolonging the pandemic and causing more economic disruption.
It’s past time for your government to support the lifting of intellectual property for COVID-19 tools and honour the pledge you made in May 2020 to treat vaccines and other medical products as global public goods.
Canada is out of step with the rest of the world. More than 100 other countries have backed the call for a comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rights, the instruments of law that create pharmaceutical monopolies and cause an artificial scarcity of the tools we need to fight COVID-19. First proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020, such a waiver would be an important step towards ensuring life-saving vaccines and treatments are shared, produced, and distributed according to need rather than profit.
But negotiations have been stalled for the last year and a half by the intransigence of a handful of wealthy countries—including Canada. While taking an outwardly neutral stance, Canadian officials in Geneva have repeatedly sided with the EU in blocking efforts to discuss the waiver at all.
There is disturbing evidence that the pharmaceutical industry has been behind Canada’s quiet obstructionism at the WTO. Internal emails recently released to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Committee show that trade officials have been closely coordinating their messaging and negotiating stance with the industry’s lobbyists.
The WTO is finally set to address the intellectual property barriers to accessing vaccines and other medical products at its 12th Ministerial meeting on June 12-15.
You must take a clear and unequivocal stance in favour of a broad waiver of intellectual property rights in advance of those meetings.
More than two-thirds of Canadians support the measure, according to a May 2022 poll, and only a small minority—fewer than 10 percent—believe that your government has excelled in its global pandemic response. You must hear the voices of this clear majority.
Your government has long committed to the principles of fairness and equity. But in practice, a few pharmaceutical companies have been given free rein to use their monopolies to deny access to their life-saving products around the world, to the detriment of our collective well-being.
Existing trade rules have allowed them to corner the market on COVID-19 tools like vaccines and treatments and rack up record-breaking profits while pricing out much of the world. The lop-sided result has been that wealthier countries like Canada have snapped up the majority of available supplies, while much of humanity is left in the position of waiting—often in vain—for donations.
But human lives are worth more than the industry’s profits.
It is time Canada broke with pharmaceutical monopolies and the failed charity-based model that have hobbled the global fight against the pandemic.
Tinkering around the edges of this model is not sufficient. Your government must also reject the deeply flawed “compromise” proposal, which the EU has placed at the centre of upcoming negotiations. Trade experts tell us that this counter-proposal would do little to increase access to vaccines and would only entrench the existing charity-based model.
To truly make an impact in ending this global pandemic for everyone—and to regain Canada’s stature on the world stage as a leader in advancing justice and equity—your government must support a comprehensive waiver at the upcoming WTO meetings, as well as continue to support the right of countries to regulate pharmaceutical monopolies in ways that keep more people alive. Canada’s safety and global health security is immensely improved when all countries are self-sufficient, and have the capacity to make their own tests, vaccines and treatments. This is the best way to prepare for the next pandemic.
No one is safe until everyone is safe, as you and your ministers have not tired of saying on countless occasions. It is time for Canada to start acting on these words internationally.
Fatima Hassan, Founder and Director, Health Justice Initiative (South Africa)
Naomi Klein, Journalist and author (Canada)
Stephen Lewis, Former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa (Canada)
Dr. Joanne Liu, Former International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (Canada)
Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada
Dr. Madhukar Pai, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health, McGill University (Canada)
Achal Prabhala, Coordinator, AccessIBSA project (India)
Joseph Stiglitz, Professor, Columbia University, Nobel Prize in Economics (United States)
Christina Warner, Co-Executive Director, Council of Canadians (Canada)
Visit the Council of Canadians website for more information, www.canadians.org.