Intellectual property rules agreed at the World Trade Organisation - known as TRIPS - establish a minimum global standard for protections of copyright and patents. Campaigners and governments are calling for these rules to be waived in the case of COVID-19 vaccines. A TRIPS waiver would mean that pharmaceutical companies and governments around the world could manufacture and distribute vaccines without needing to pay licenses to the drug companies that developed the vaccines.
The waiver was proposed by the governments of India and South Africa, with support from many other governments in the global South. In May 2021 President Biden signalled the US government's support for the waiver. The European Commission and the UK government, among others, remain opposed to the proposals, which require the unanimous support of all 164 members of the WTO. Medecins Sans Frontiers are tracking the position of each country.
Campaigners have pointed to vaccine inequality, which will see populations in the global North vaccinated rapidly whilst poorer countries may not start vaccination programmes until 2023, as evidence that the waiver is necessary.
In March 2022 the WTO announced that a waiver agreement had been reached by the EU, USA, South Africa and India. This agreement waives intellectual property rules around COVID vaccines but excludes therapeutics and COVID testing, in a notable dilution of the original proposal. The agreement requires the approval of all WTO members to proceed; civil society groups have called on states to block this weakened waiver, arguing that failure to do so "will cost lives".