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Law360 (March 22, 2021, 10:29 PM EDT) -- More than 250 research and education organizations on Sunday called on the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive any intellectual property rights for vaccines and treatments related to COVID-19, saying in a statement that "urgent action" is needed to address copyright barriers preventing access to knowledge.
For months, the WTO's Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights has mulled issuing a waiver but has repeatedly failed to reach an agreement on a proposal. Most recently, the council failed to take action after a meeting earlier this month, on the one-year anniversary of the WHO's declaration of a pandemic.
The council is mulling a proposal that would waive for WTO members certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement — which governs international intellectual property rights — for treating, containing and preventing COVID-19, but only until widespread vaccination and immunity are achieved.
The research and education organizations and individuals said in Sunday's statement that the waiver is needed to support the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. Among the statement's signatories are the largest library and education federations in the world, including Education International and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.
In particular, the groups and researchers pointed to "deep inequalities in access to knowledge" that have been "aggravated" by the pandemic.
"In some countries with flexible copyright systems, residents are able to access and use essential materials in remote educational, learning and research activities, virtually access and use the collections of libraries and other institutions, and contribute to research on treatments using advanced processes such as text and data mining," they said. "But these activities are not taking place everywhere because they are not lawful everywhere."
The groups and researchers said that many countries' copyright laws don't allow researchers, academics or libraries to remotely access and use essential materials, forcing them to either travel to access the materials or suspend their work. On top of that, access to this information could be key to developing COVID-19 treatments, they said.
"Inequity in the possibilities to use products of knowledge and culture violates the right to health, to receive and impart information, to education, to participate in cultural life, and to benefit from scientific progress," they said.
The organizations and researchers urged all WTO members to endorse the TRIPS waiver proposal, including provisions on copyright. On top of that, they called on the WTO and other agencies in charge of promoting the public interest in access to knowledge to "act urgently to further guide countries in addressing copyright barriers to access to knowledge that have been illuminated and magnified by COVID-19."
Sean Flynn, the director of American University's Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, said in a statement that the need for intellectual property policy to accommodate emergency measures to prevent and treat COVID-19 isn't limited to patent law.
"Preventing the spread of the pandemic requires taking research and learning online," he said. "The discovery, development and utilization of treatments for COVID-19 requires high technology uses such as text and data mining, artificial intelligence and reverse engineering of software."
The waiver proposal was co-sponsored by 57 countries in the trade group and earlier this month support split largely along the lines of the WTO's self-identified developed and developing countries.
The governments of the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom, among others, objected to the popular proposal at the March 11 meeting. According to a trade official, the only developing country to oppose the waiver at the March 11 meeting was Brazil.
In the U.S. and the developed countries, advocacy groups responded to the latest inaction with outrage. But among business groups, strident opposition to the waiver has only grown. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned the WTO's new director-general not to "distract" herself with the proposal earlier in March.
--Additional reporting by Andrew Karpan, Kevin Stawicki and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Michael Watanabe.
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