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Omicron variant reignites calls for Canada to support waiving of COVID-19 vaccine IP

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OTTAWA —
In light of the emergence of the new Omicron variant of concern, calls are mounting once again for Canada to support a global initiative to temporarily waive intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines.

Opposition politicians and medical groups are urging the Liberals to finally put their support behind a 2020 joint proposal led by India and South Africa to suspend the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the course of the pandemic.

The move would give lower-income countries access to vital information like trade secrets, designs, and copyrights to produce COVID-19 treatments domestically, and more cheaply.

In South Africa, where the Omicron is spreading quickly, less than 25 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated against the virus, compared to the nearly 76 per cent in Canada.

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Experts say this is due to a combination of vaccine inequity and hesitancy.

The government has continued to state that they are not against the TRIPS waiver, but are consulting with countries and stakeholders on the right path forward.

Ottawa also often points to their contributions to the global vaccine sharing network COVAX, of which they’ve donated more than 8.3 million surplus vaccines of a promised 200 million by the end of 2022.

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters on Tuesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to “take a position” and either support the global battle to fight the virus or protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s not enough for us to support Canadians and do our part here in Canada, we also have to help countries around the world and those particularly that have less means to purchase vaccines….We need to make sure that people are put first,” he said.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) co-signed a letter to the United Nations, along with other international nursing unions, to push for political action on vaccine inequity.

Pauline Worsfold, the CFNU’s secretary treasurer and a nurse on the frontlines of the pandemic in Alberta, said the fact that Canada hasn’t agreed to sign onto the TRIPS waiver proposal is a “sin.”

“It’s inequitable to those countries that can’t afford to vaccinate, to pay the high price to vaccinate their populations…no one is safe until everyone is safe and I think this new variant is part and parcel of the proof,” she told CTVNews.ca during an interview.

Asked whether she buys into the argument that patent monopolies foster innovation and help firms recover their investments in research and development, Worsfold said “not for a second.”

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A spokesperson for International Trade Minister Mary Ng previously told CTVNews.ca that the TRIPS waiver would be a priority topic discussed at the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference that was scheduled to take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3.

The conference has since been postponed due to the threat of the Omicron variant.

In a statement to CTVNews.ca issued Tuesday, the spokesperson said, “Our government has always been, and will always be, a strong advocate for vaccine equity.”

“We are participating in discussions to waive intellectual property protections particular to COVID-19 vaccines under the WTO Agreement on TRIPS. Canada will continue to work with international partners in the WTO towards achieving a speedy and just recovery around the world,” said Alice Hansen.

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