The global struggle for access to COVID-19 vaccines took a dramatic turn recently as the Biden Administration in the United States unexpectedly reversed its longstanding opposition to a patent waiver designed to facilitate access to vaccines in the developing world. The shift seemingly caught many by surprise. Pharmaceutical companies were quick to voice opposition and U.S. allies found themselves being asked to take positions. That was certainly the case in Canada, where the Canadian government has steadfastly refused to support the waiver with repeated claims that it had yet to make a decision.
Ellen ‘t Hoen, is a lawyer and public health advocate with over 30 years of experience working on pharmaceutical and intellectual property policies. From 1999 until 2009 she was the director of policy for Médecins sans Frontières’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. In 2009 she joined UNITAID in Geneva to set up the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). Ellen is currently the director of Medicines Law & Policy and a researcher at the University Medical Centre Groningen. She joins the Lawbytes podcast this week to talk about the fight for a patent waiver and the implications of the Biden decision for global access to COVID vaccines.
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As countries around the globe work to get their citizen vaccinated against COVID-19, a battle over intellectual property rules has emerged at the World Trade Organization. Last year, Canada passed legislation designed to ensure that patents would not pose a barrier to securing supplies of a vaccine or treatment. A year later, developing countries around the world have looked to the WTO to develop similar standards through a waiver process that would speed up access to, and production of, vaccines. Yet the proposal has run into opposition at the WTO, including from Canada.
Thiru Balasubramaniam is the Geneva Representative of Knowledge Ecology International, where he works on IP, health, and trade issues at the WTO, WIPO, and World Health Organization. He joins the Law Bytes podcast to discuss the recent developments at the WTO, the position of developed countries such as Canada, and what this means for global access to critical vaccines.
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Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act, was the Canadian government’s legislative response to the Coronavirus pandemic. In addition a host of economic measures, the bill included some unexpected patent law provisions designed to speed access to essential medicines, devices or treatments. Matthew Herder, the director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University, joins the podcast discuss the new Canadian rules, the use of compulsory licensing to enhance access to medicines, and other innovative approaches to overcoming potential access barriers raised by intellectual property laws.
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As Canadian officials prepare for the forthcoming NAFTA renegotiation, changes to Canada’s border measures provisions seem likely to surface as a U.S. demand. Late last month, the USTR released its annual Special 301 report and the issue of Canadian anti-counterfeiting law – in particular, the absence of provisions to allow for the search of in-transit shipments that are not bound for Canada – topped the list of concerns. The U.S. report states:
The United States remains deeply concerned that Canada does not provide customs officials with the ability to detain, seize, and destroy pirated and counterfeit goods that are moving in transit or are transshipped through Canada. As a result, the United States strongly urges Canada to provide its customs officials with full ex officio authority to address the serious problem of pirated and counterfeit goods entering our highly integrated supply chains.
The U.S. position has garnered some support in Canada. For example, a recent Globe and Mail editorial urged the government to change the 2014 anti-counterfeiting law by granting customs agents the power to search and seize shipments that are not bound for Canada.
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Last year, the federal government trumpeted anti-counterfeiting legislation as a key priority. The bill raced through the legislative process in the winter and following some minor modifications after committee hearings, seemed set to pass through the House of Commons. Yet after committee approval, the bill suddenly stalled with little movement throughout the spring.
Why did a legislative priority with all-party approval seemingly grind to a halt?
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) suggests that the answer appears to stem from the appointment of Bruce Heyman as the new U.S. ambassador to Canada. During his appointment process, Heyman identified intellectual property issues as a top priority and as part of his first major speech as ambassador, singled out perceived shortcomings in the anti-counterfeiting bill.
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