Waiving Goodbye: A critical analysis of the European Commission’s opposition to waiving intellectual property right on COVID-19 related medical tools and knowledge
Intellectual property regulation has not been a central area of study in the discipline of international political economy, and has often been dismissed as being ‘technical’ or belonging to the legal sector. However, intellectual property (IP) is greatly political by nature, and has created asymmetric relationships between those who ‘own’ knowledge and those who do not. In the COVID-19 pandemic, this has manifested itself in an imbalance between countries in the Global North, hoarding vaccines and medical supplies, and countries in the Global South, dealing with vaccine and supply shortages. In Fall 2020, before any vaccine was developed, India and South Africa sought to prevent this situation of unequal distribution of necessary medical tools, by submitting to the World Trade Organization a proposal for waiving intellectual property rights on medical tools and knowledge necessary for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 infections. Despite the European Commission’s commitment to making sure that COVID-19 vaccines would become ‘global common goods’, it has been the main opponent of this waiver, attempting to halt negotiations and water down the original proposal. In this thesis, the reluctant stance of the European Commission towards a waiver is explained, using a Gramscian approach to historical materialism. The analysis demonstrates how the legitimacy of intellectual property rights has gradually been entrenched within European discourse, economy and institutions, particularly since the emergence of the knowledge-based economy starting in the late 1960s and the accompanying process of commodification of knowledge. It is concluded that the European Commission’s reluctant stance corresponds to its history of favouring strong IP-protection, and that interests of the advanced pharmaceutical industry have been disproportionately favoured in the European Commission’s decision making process during the pandemic, reinforcing this situation.
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