Documents show close talks between Canadian government and pharma over plan for Covid intellectual property waiver

Farma Darya

Government officials provided detailed updates to industry about how discussions of the waiver among World Trade Organization members were proceeding. Both sides agreed to keep the other up to date.

The records were turned over by the foreign affairs department as part of the committee’s study of vaccine equity.

Last month, the U.S., EU, South Africa and India reached a compromise on a waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines, nearly 18 months after the idea was proposed. The waiver still needs agreement from other WTO members.

Canada has not yet said whether it will endorse the proposal — in the House of Commons earlier this month, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said only that Canada is “working in partnership with the WHO and COVAX to make sure that the world gets vaccinated.”

Last May, after the Biden administration did an about-face and threw its support behind the idea of an IP waiver, Ng issued a statement saying Canada was “ready to discuss proposals.” But the statement also noted that many barriers to vaccine access “are unrelated to IP, such as supply chain constraints.”

During a May 12 meeting with Ng, a representative for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said the statement was “highly appropriate.” A representative for Innovative Medicines Canada, which represents Canada’s pharmaceutical sector, said the industry was “very pleased.” A summary of the meeting says the participants appreciated the “delicate political situation” Canada was facing and underscored “the importance of further collaboration with industry.”

At the time, Canada’s domestic vaccination effort was still ramping up, with the country lagging behind other wealthy nations, and there was intense scrutiny of the government’s attempts to secure enough vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

During the meeting, the industry reps stressed their opposition to a waiver, calling the idea “simplistic” and pointing to supply chain bottlenecks as a more important barrier to vaccine access than patents.

Ng seemed sympathetic to their position, saying it was important to find consensus on “actual impediments” to vaccine distribution. She also assured them the government was “not committing ourselves until we see text in front of us.”

At the end of the meeting, according to the documents, the IMC representative thanked the minister for the “finesse that [she’d] brought to this very pressured situation,” and Ng said it would be important to provide “good factual information” on challenges created by the pandemic.

During a subsequent meeting with industry representatives on July 15, officials with Global Affairs Canada gave an overview of negotiations between WTO members on the waiver proposal, and confirmed that Canada’s position had not changed since the May statement. They also suggested, in response to a question from a representative for Johnson & Johnson, that industry could use the annual WTO Public Forum to communicate their position that waiving patents alone would not lead to more vaccine production.

In a Sept. 15 meeting, government officials provided industry with another update on negotiations, and all parties agreed to “remain in contact and to share information and developments on the waiver.”

The documents also show subsequent meetings were arranged in January and again earlier this month, shortly after the compromise proposal was made public. No details of those meetings are provided, but they appear to have included representatives for IMC, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Pharmaceutical executives and charity groups both told MPs during a committee meeting Monday that intellectual property is not the main barrier to getting Covid vaccines in arms in developing countries. They pointed instead to distribution issues, insufficient health care capacity and vaccine hesitancy.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the global vaccine alliance Gavi, told the foreign affairs committee it would have made no difference if a waiver had been accepted earlier. “The critical issue is know-how,” he said. “Patents have not been the blocking factor here.”

Zi-Ann Lum contributed to this report.

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