Canada agrees to take part in WTO talks to waive patent protections on vaccines

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WASHINGTON — Canada will indeed take part in the World Trade Organization talks to explore waiving the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets, International Trade Minister Mary Ng said Thursday.

The pronouncement, which came during question period in the House of Commons, puts Canada more squarely onside with the United States, which made a similar commitment Wednesday.

But it followed a confusing 24-hour window that left unclear whether Canada, despite full-throated expressions of support for the U.S. decision, would be willing to sit down at the negotiating table.

In theory, a waiver to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, would make it easier for developing countries to import the expertise, equipment and ingredients necessary to make their own vaccines.

"We will actively participate in negotiations to waive intellectual property protection particular to COVID-19 vaccines under the WTO agreement on TRIPS," Ng said in response to a question from New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh.

On Wednesday, following the U.S. decision, federal officials pointed to Ng's statement on Twitter, where she said Canada is "actively supporting the WTO’s efforts to accelerate global vaccine production and distribution."

"We look forward to working with the US on finding solutions to ensure a just and speedy global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Critics were unimpressed.

The One Campaign, a progressive anti-poverty group that has had kind words for Justin Trudeau in the past, expressed disappointment that Canada was "oddly absent" from the discussion.

"Canada is one of the countries that hasn't supported sharing the intellectual property for vaccines," the campaign said in a statement.

"The US announced (Wednesday) that they will. Where's Canada?"

The pharmaceutical industry, meanwhile, remains staunchly opposed to the idea of a waiver, which they say won't have the desired effect and would undermine the development of innovative drugs.

Intellectual property protection "is a crucial element for a thriving life sciences sector," the Canadian pharmaceutical lobby group Innovative Medicines Canada said in a statement.

"The proposed waiver ... would be a disappointing step that will create greater uncertainty and unpredictability in the production, quality and availability of COVID-19 vaccines."

Other medical experts say a waiver would take too long, and the developed world should focus instead on ramping up existing production.

"I think it's modest compared to the other big things that we need," Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the school of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told MSNBC.

"Loosening the patents is maybe a long-term issue, but it's not going to address how we vaccinate the world's low and middle-income countries over the next year or so."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press