South Africa, India, and more than 100 other nations have called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines, saying they are being prevented from immunising their people.
The two countries first made the appeal in October last year, calling on the WTO to waive provisions in a trade agreement governing intellectual property rights so medical products can be more easily accessed by developing nations. More than 100 nations have since joined the calls.
Endorsing requests for a waiver, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier this month: "If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?"
At the core of the discussion stands a proposal submitted in October by South Africa and India to suspend the WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
The goal is to facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries to ramp up the global production of vaccines and other necessary equipment.
Last month, more than 400 organisations in the United States joined forces calling on President Joe Biden to endorse the waiver, while 115 members of the European Commission issued a declaration urging the European Union to drop its opposition to the temporary suspension.
The African Union also backed the relaxing of rules on intellectual property (IP), calling it a "win-win for everybody".
According to a campaign group called ONE, richer countries are hoarding excess doses of COVID-19 vaccines and buying one billion more than their citizens need, which prevents poorer nations from getting vaccinated this year.
"This huge vaccine excess is the embodiment of vaccine nationalism, with countries prioritising their own vaccination needs at the expense of other countries and the global recovery," said ONE in a report last month.
ONE's policy team added "a massive course correction" in distribution was needed if the world wanted to protect and save lives as the death toll from the pandemic approaches 2.5 million.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last month just 10 countries had so far administered 75 percent of all vaccinations, describing it as "wildly uneven and unfair".
At least 130 countries have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, said Guterres.
"At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community," he said.