Intellectual Property and the Politics of Public Good in COVID-19: Framing Law, Institutions, and Ideas during TRIPS Waiver Negotiations at the WTO

Sara E. Fischer, University of Puget Sound
Lucia Vitale, University of California, Santa Cruz
Akinyi Lisa Agutu, Washington Bar Association
Matthew M. Kavanagh, O'Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law, Georgetown Law Center


Context: To facilitate the manufacturing of COVID-19 medical products, in October 2020, India and South Africa proposed a waiver of certain WTO intellectual property (IP) provisions. After 18 months, a narrow agreement that did little for vaccine access passed the ministerial, despite the pandemic’s impact on global trade, which the WTO is mandated to safeguard.

Methods: The authors conducted a content analysis of WTO legal texts, key actor statements, media reporting, and the WTO’s procedural framework to explore legal, institutional, and ideational explanations for the delay.

Findings: IP waivers are neither legally complex nor unprecedented within WTO law, yet TRIPS waiver negotiations exceeded their mandated 90-day negotiation period by nearly 2 years. Waiver opponents and supporters engaged in escalating strategic framing, which justified and eventually secured political attention at head-of-state level, sidelining other pandemic solutions. The frames deployed discouraged consensus on a meaningful waiver, which ultimately favored the status quo that opponents preferred. WTO institutional design encouraged drawn-out negotiation while limiting legitimate players in debate to trade ministers, empowering narrow interest group politics.

Conclusions: Despite global political attention, the WTO process contributed little to emergency vaccine production, suggesting a pressing need for reforms aimed at more efficient and equitable multilateral processes.