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