Canada

With emergence of the Omicron, Canada must finally waive COVID-19 vaccine patents: Singh

Singh said by not yet taking a stance on the issue, Trudeau would ‘rather protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies than help in the global battle against the pandemic’

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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says the emergence of the Omicron variant means the Liberal government must finally back international calls to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines.

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“With what we’re seeing in the Omicron variant, is that unless and until we do our part in tackling the global pandemic, meaning we help people around the world, we will not be able to beat this pandemic,” Singh told reporters on Parliament Hill Tuesday.

He said allowing developing countries, which have fewer resources to buy vaccines, to manufacture their own is one of the most important ways to tackle COVID.

The new variant was reported by South Africa last week and led the Liberal government to ban flights from seven African countries Friday, a ban that was extended to a further three countries Tuesday. The government is also introducing testing requirements for nearly all air travellers.

For more than a year, South Africa and India have been asking for the patents on COVID related vaccines and drugs to be waived through a so-called TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization.

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South African High Commissioner Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo also called on the Liberal government to support the patent waiver Tuesday. She told the Canadian Press that the Omicron variant emerged because of vaccine inequality, noting that less than one-quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated.

Singh said by not yet taking a stance on the issue, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would “rather protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies than help in the global battle against the pandemic.”

“Mr. Trudeau needs to take a position,” Singh said.

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The United States is among 100 other countries that support the waiver. “I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday.

While that WTO ministerial meeting was then suspended over concerns about the Omicron variant, discussions on patent issues continued at the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

The WTO said in a press release Monday that “members expressed unanimous support for maintaining the momentum of the discussions on a common intellectual property (IP) response to COVID-19.” That includes the proposal by India and South Africa asking for a patent waiver.

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It said delegations are “committed to continue engaging in various configurations in the coming weeks to try and harvest any outcome that may still be possible.”

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said in the spring that he supports a temporary suspension to intellectual property rules, as dozens of MPs from all parties, including Liberals, signed an open letter calling on the government to support the waiver.

“Opponents of the waiver proposal argue that patent monopolies are necessary to allow firms to recover their investments in research and development. However, given that COVID-19 vaccine development was primarily financed through public investment and advanced market commitments, we strongly believe this justification does not apply,” the letter said.

Asked how much of a difference he believes Canada’s voice could make on this issue, given that it’s an international decision, Singh said “it’s a part of our fight. It’s a part of what Canada can do.”

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Jason Nickerson, Doctors Without Borders’ humanitarian advisor to Canada, as a G7 economy, Canada “supporting something like the TRIPS waiver, brings with it significant political and economic clout.”

Nickerson, whose organization has been advocating for the patent waiver, said it would remove one barrier to “more companies being able to produce more vaccine doses in different parts of the world which should lead to greater availability of doses and greater access to them.”

He noted that “all along, we and many other public health experts have been saying that it is absolutely essential that the world scales out access to COVID vaccine.” He said that’s both because it’s the “morally correct thing to do” but also because when it comes to public health, “we know that vaccinating people helps to reduce transmission, and that should decrease the chances of the variants emerging from an unvaccinated unprotected population.”

Alice Hansen, press secretary for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, said in a statement Canada is “participating in discussions to waive intellectual property protections particular to COVID-19 vaccines under the WTO Agreement on TRIPS.” She did not respond to a follow-up question about whether that means Canada supports the waiver.

Ng was asked about the waiver prior to Question Period Tuesday. She responded that Canada is “at the table” and is “working towards pragmatic solutions.”

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