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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 15 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 8

TRIPS Waiver: Motion

I move:

“That Seanad Éireann:

notes with concern:

- the ongoing global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic;

- the lack of equitable access to vaccines for many countries in the global south, particularly African countries;

- that it is an injustice that only 5.88% of people living in Africa are fully vaccinated and only 27% of healthcare workers across Africa are fully vaccinated;

- that public health experts have consistently warned that failure to reach sufficiently high vaccination levels in every part of the planet would contribute to the emergence of new variants of concern such as the recently announced Omicron variant;

- that the European Commission has consistently blocked the introduction of a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) TRIPS Council;

further notes:

- that very large amounts of public money contributed to the discovery and development of Covid-19 vaccines;

- that the introduction of a TRIPS waiver could contribute to a significant increase in global manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines, including wider manufacture in the global south, and this would expedite global access to vaccination;

- that a TRIPS waiver was first proposed by South Africa and India in December, 2020, and has been supported by over 100 countries worldwide;

- the support of the United States of America for a TRIPS waiver, recently reaffirmed by President Biden;

- the resolution of the European Parliament in support of a TRIPS waiver in June 2021;

- the report published by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in March 2021, which identified a TRIPS waiver as a key public health mechanism and noted its importance in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis;

- the strong calls from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS for a TRIPS waiver and global vaccine equity;

- the calls from international civil society organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Trócaire and Christian Aid, for a TRIPS waiver;

- that a formal appeal to the United Nations has been filed by nursing unions from 28 countries, representing 2.5 million nurses, stating that the failure of the European Union, United Kingdom and other countries to support a TRIPS waiver has cost huge numbers of lives in the global south;

- that less than one-third of vaccine doses pledged through the COVAX Initiative have been delivered;

recognises that:

- a global pandemic requires a global response;

- the longer we take to achieve global vaccination thresholds, the more lives will be lost and the greater the cumulative damage to societies and economies worldwide;

- a TRIPS waiver is an important part of an effective global public health response;

- the prolonged delays in the agreement of a TRIPS waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council has worsened the situation in respect of Covid-19 for global south countries;

- sustained blocking of a TRIPS waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council is not responsible or sustainable from a moral, diplomatic or public health perspective;

- none of us are safe from Covid-19 until everyone is safe;

calls on the Government to:

- immediately express public support for a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology, as a crucial step in supporting the scaling up of vaccine production in low and middle-income countries;

- urgently write to the President of the European Commission and the European Commissioner for Trade to express Ireland’s support for a TRIPS waiver and to call on the European Commission to end its blockage of the proposal at the next meeting of the WTO;

- strongly, publicly and consistently call on the European Commission, fellow members of the European Union and other countries across the world to support a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines;

- sign up to the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and support its efforts to facilitate the open sharing of technology and know-how in relation to vaccine production and the treatment of persons infected with Covid-19.”

I am sharing time with Senator Ruane.

The Minister of State, Deputy English, will be aware I have been raising this issue for many months with many Ministers. I will begin with a sense of the timeline of what has got us to the point we are at today. This time last year, we were at a point, following a difficult year of the pandemic, of cautious optimism. We had seen the damage inflicted by the pandemic but also the importance of solidarity. We had heard much talk about how no one is safe until we are all safe and that the only way we could address this was by working together. We reflected that in communities and at national level and we were told it was being reflected at international level as well. Governments came through, and €93 billion was given in public funding to expedite the development of vaccines.

In the meantime, as part of that, the infrastructure was being put in place to ensure that once those vaccines had been developed, they could be shared rapidly and that they would reach those who most needed them. The COVAX initiative, we were told, would prioritise getting the most vulnerable 20% of every country in the world vaccinated before we then moved to reaching that threshold of vaccination that might help slow or halt the pandemic in every other country. The Covid technology access pool, C-TAP, had been set up to provide a clear, safe, planned mechanism that would allow companies to share intellectual property of different kinds relating to diagnosis, testing, treatment and vaccination against Covid-19.

All these elements were in place, yet just a month or two later, in January 2021, we found ourselves at a point where all the promises that had been made and the commitments given were already beginning to fray. The director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in the context of vaccine inequity that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”. That was the warning and the appeal in January of this year. Since then, we have seen the failure to share intellectual property or to engage with the sharing of technology access pool. We have seen how vaccine manufacturers very much chose to prioritise profits over public health and did not engage in the voluntary licensing or sharing of patents, know-how or, crucially, the trade secrets and manufacturing information.

As for the really important COVAX initiative, to date only one third of the promised doses have been delivered. We are nowhere near the idea of 20% of vulnerable populations throughout the world having been vaccinated. In Africa, only 5.88% of people have received full vaccination, while the figure for their front-line health workers, who are meant to be a priority, is only 27%. The figures relating to the sharing of COVAX are extraordinarily poor. Not only that but, instead of doing what COVAX was designed for, namely, richer countries sponsoring the manufacture and direct delivery of vaccines to poorer countries, richer countries have bought up and hoarded vaccines and then donated them, just as they are on the brink of expiry, to systems that will struggle to distribute them in time. As has been highlighted by health experts and the World Health Organization, that is not what COVAX was designed for. It is not a charitable overflow. It was meant to be a core part of how we would tackle this together. Ireland has failed, as have other countries, in meeting the targets for COVAX vaccines.

I raised this last June. In The Lancet, the world's most respected medical journal, in that month an expert is quoted as saying: "[COVAX] was a beautiful idea, born out of solidarity. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen [because] rich countries behaved worse than anyone's worst nightmares." That is a very credible, respectable and careful medical journal giving us the verdict in June. Before that, throughout this process, there had been the call for a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver, whereby we would waive the intellectual property rights, on an international level, to ensure poorer countries would be able to manufacture their own vaccines and we would have the maximum level of manufacturing as quickly as possible, given we know this is about getting ahead of the virus.

That proposal originally came in October 2020 from India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization TRIPS council and has since been backed by 100 countries, including the United States, which backed it in May of this year and again in November. President Biden directly appealed to the world's nations to rise to the challenge and address this issue quickly. The main blocks to the sharing of intellectual property have been the European Union, as represented by the European Commission, Switzerland and the UK, that is, a handful of countries set against 100 other countries, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, other UN bodies and, crucially, civil society organisations of every kind.

We recently arrived at a point at which 2.5 million nurses had lodged an appeal with the UN over the human rights violation represented by delaying the sharing of intellectual property and vaccines and putting the global health front line at risk. As this has progressed, the deaths have mounted. The figures vary from 5 million, according to some accounts, to 17 million, according to The Economist, if the indirect deaths are counted. We should bear in mind that we are losing our global health front line.

There has been a consistent warning to the effect that if we do not take action, we risk the emergence of new variants. We talked about that back in March. It was acknowledged by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, in March, yet Omicron has emerged, as was predicted and as was inevitable. We see the effects. We all know people who have caught Covid in the past month or week. It is spreading very rapidly across Europe, including in the UK and Ireland. Imagine the circumstances in a country in which only 5% of the population are vaccinated. In such a country, not only are more people catching the virus, but more are dying from it. In such a country, the health service staff are not vaccinated, there is no social welfare net, and there is no access to credit to keep businesses afloat. Imagine that, because that is the reality we are choosing to impose on the world. Imagine how you would feel if a solution was available that was not being shared. Last week African countries were meeting to talk about starting from scratch and inventing their own mRNA vaccines. They would have to start where we were two years ago, perhaps having trials in 2023. This is happening because are not sharing.

In my last minute or two, I want to address the countermotion because it does not stand up. I thank Dr. Aisling McMahon of Maynooth University, Dr. Luke McDonagh of the London School of Economics and many experts who have rebutted it. Let us be clear: there has been stalling and there have been disingenuous arguments, none of which stands up. The idea that there is insufficient manufacturing capacity was disproved last spring. It was disproved again this week when 100 specific factories were identified that could be producing within three months. The idea that incentives and innovation would be killed does not stand up. We heard that argument about sharing HIV drugs and it did not stand up. In fact, we are not using the world's scientists to innovate and build on what we have done. We are sending them back to the starting block that existed three years ago rather than building on the work of South African scientists so we will be ahead of the curve.

Let us be honest about the fact that it was the €93 billion in public money that drove the speedy development of the vaccine. The arguments about incentives do not stand up. The argument on TRIPS flexibilities that is now being proposed is extraordinarily disingenuous. It is patronising the public by putting the word "flexibilities" next to the word "TRIPS" so it will sound like a TRIPS waiver. It is not. In June of this year, when the World Trade Organization itself said we should start negotiating on the text and that concerns could be addressed in the text, the EU said that, instead of negotiating on the text, it wanted to make a counter-proposal. It wanted to stall discussion on the TRIPS waiver by putting a different proposal on the table. It was proposing an explanation of the TRIPS agreement based on the belief that, somehow, all the non-EU countries in the WTO did not understand, and also proposing to ask countries whether they knew the pandemic was a national emergency. The countries in question know that, and they know that there has been a failure to use the compulsory licensing measures successfully time and again because they have been blocked by countries. It appears to be a matter of a country-by-country solution whereby each vulnerable country must try to negotiate and achieve a patents licence, which may be involve hundreds of patents, regarding any one vaccine. The countries in question know that countries that have done this in the past faced huge reprisals, much as South Africa, when it tried this approach with HIV, had 14 different companies taking cases against it at one point. It has been sanctioned and pressured by other countries.

Also on compulsory licensing, we know about the idea of compulsory licensing for exports. In this regard, the one company that has tried to achieve this in respect of Covid-19, in Canada, has been resolutely blocked. Compulsory licensing for exports has been described as completely unworkable and has only ever been deployed once. By contrast, the TRIPS waiver does not mean the end of intellectual property everywhere; it means the end of the international blocks in respect of intellectual property. Each country, even if wealthy, could choose, if it so wished, to maintain its national intellectual property regime. If wealthy countries wished to continue to keep intellectual property regimes, they could, but what I propose would mean the poorer countries, the developing countries, would be able to take the steps they need to.

The arguments do not stand up. They are extraordinarily weak. It is disgraceful that we will enter February 2022 with yet more stalling by the European Commission. I ask the Irish Government to take a stand. Our stance is destroying our reputation, including diplomatically, and doing a disservice to our tradition on human rights.

I second the motion.

I thank the Minister of State. I also thank Senator Higgins, who has shown great leadership and come from a place of being a global citizen and of caring deeply about everybody around the world, not just ourselves. It will be hard for anybody in this House to match her knowledge, experience and passion. We should all listen carefully to what she is saying about this.

We will hear much debate about the TRIPS waiver, many statistics and arguments, and references to complex trade agreements. In the short time I have, I will try to be clear. There is a virus, there are victims of that virus, and there is a vaccine. It is as simple as that. When I speak about victims, I do so in the broadest possible terms. I am speaking of those who have died, their families and communities, not only in Ireland but also across the rest of the world. What Senator Higgins said made it so real. She asked us to imagine what it would be like if we were sitting here if some other country had the solution and we could not gain access to it. It is as simple as that for us, and it should be that simple for everybody.

What will be made clear this evening is the fact that, more often than not, suffering is not innocent. While we may all be experiencing Covid to a greater or lesser extent, it has not excused or stopped us from condemning others. There are victims of Covid and many more millions of victims of our policy choices. The latter do not have to die from Covid. We are making a policy choice not to give them access to the vaccine. Our choices and policy decisions are what people fall victim to in the global south.

Only two days ago the Minister for Health announced that the gap between booster shots will be reduced to three months, which is welcome news, but it tends to jar when considered alongside recent WHO research that found six times more booster shots are being administered daily around the world than primary vaccine doses in low-income countries. It does not have to be like this. After all, when we think about what the word "pandemic" means in Greek — "all people" — we realise it impacts all people. Therefore, all people should have access to the same solution. This is implied in the term "pandemic". This is highlighted by the fact that researchers have indicated that the Omicron variant originated in areas with low vaccine-access rates. It is for this very clear and simple reason that more than 400 leading scientists and medical professionals, including Professor Luke O'Neill, Professor Clíona Ní Cheallaigh and Professor Sam McConkey, signed a public statement earlier this month urging the Government to support the TRIPS waiver.

Throughout the first lockdown, I read Albert Camus's classic The Plague. I realised we have not really evolved very much and that we have been here before. The story has already been told. One quote I took from the book was, "It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency."

What we are seeing here in the context of the counter-motion and the refusal to sign the TRIPS waiver is a lack of real and honest human decency and it is wrong.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann:” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges that:

- universal and equitable access to vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19 and Governments in the developed world must do more to ensure this;

- international trade is a competence of the EU under the Treaties and in exercising that competence, the European Commission engages fully with the Member States, including Ireland, through a variety of Committees and Working Parties/Groups, including on Intellectual Property;

- Ireland will engage with the European Commission and other Member States on the EU position for the WTO discussions on how the flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement can contribute towards increasing the manufacturing capacity and the equitable access to vaccines around the world;

- the EU continues to be committed to an open and comprehensive dialogue with all WTO members to explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments;

- the EU made an alternative proposal which is targeted and pragmatic and aims at ensuring that Governments can resort to compulsory licences, including to export to countries with no or limited manufacturing capacities, in the most effective manner adapted to the circumstances of a pandemic;

- since the inception of the TRIPS Agreement, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have benefitted from an extended transition period to apply provisions of the TRIPS Agreement, in recognition of their special requirements, their economic, financial and administrative constraints, and their need for flexibility in order to create a viable technological base;

- the EU considers that the COVAX Facility, the international initiative to ensure global access to Covid vaccines, is the mechanism that is best placed to ensure that high-income countries finance the vaccines and support developing countries to secure their share of global supply;

- the EU with its Member States have been the leading donor to the COVAX Facility with €3.2 billion committed for equitable distribution of vaccines; the EU has been the leading exporter of vaccines, out of a total of 2 billion doses produced since December 2020, the EU has exported over 1.4 billion doses to 150 countries; the EU’s target is to donate 700 million doses by mid-2022; and the EU is also investing €1bn to ramp up mRNA production capacity in Africa;

- Ireland will donate over 1.3 million surplus vaccines this year to low-income countries as part of the COVAX programme; the first 500,000 Irish doses donated through COVAX reached Nigeria on 29th November; in addition, Ireland has delivered on its commitment to donate 335,000 Covid-19 doses to Uganda, with further significant donations to follow soon; and Ireland has contributed €7 million to COVAX to facilitate the procurement of vaccines by low and middle income countries, this translates roughly to a further 1.2 million doses of vaccine donated by Ireland to low-and-middle income countries;

- the risks to companies of investing in vaccine development and manufacturing were underwritten and mitigated by large public investments and advance purchasing agreements; and notwithstanding these interventions, consideration of the matter must balance the need to encourage and support industry to carry out research, innovate and develop new medicines and vaccines with the importance of ensuring fair, equitable access to medicines and medicinal products.”

I thank Senator Higgins for tabling the motion and Senator Ruane for seconding it. It is a really important debate. We hope the Government will take note of it. Universal and equitable access to vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19. One of the most moving interviews I have heard on this issue took place on the "Brendan O'Connor" radio programme on Saturday, 28 November. I love listening to Brendan O'Connor on Saturdays and Sundays. He has an objective view and never has any agenda in terms of who he brings in to interview or how he responds or reacts. He always tries to be fair to everybody. Dr. Gabrielle Colleran was on his show on that date. Sometimes you hear an interview that stops you in your tracks and you know that what is being said is crucial. For the past 20 months, we have all been listening to debates about Covid, vaccines, masks, mask-wearing, social distancing and all the different things, so, to a certain extent, we may be slightly inured to the debate. The interview with Dr. Colleran, however, was incredible. She actually broke down crying during the interview when she was asked about this issue of global vaccines. She apologised and explained that she was tired and exhausted, as were all of her colleagues. They are all working so hard to ensure that those who are sick in hospital and in ICU recover and they are trying to get shots into everybody's arms. Speaking about global vaccines and trying to get vaccines to the poorer and least-developed countries, she was at a loss in respect of how we cannot see the bigger picture in terms of the moral view, which is hugely important - this is about equity and ensuring those in the poorest countries have the same opportunities as us to stay healthy and be able to thrive - but also the whole notion that none of us are safe until all of us are safe and that while there are so few vaccines in poorer countries, we are all at risk. There is an argument on every side of this issue. I say "Fair play" to Dr. Colleran. She really put it into perspective in that interview. For the record, I support the whole TRIPS area.

She also spoke about pharma companies and the fact that, basically, they are saying that their innovation would not be protected if the waiver was given. That is not necessarily the case, however, because countries put significant amounts of money into developing these vaccines and that has to be recognised. The risk was not taken just by the pharma companies. It would not stifle innovation. We cannot protect global pharma if doing so results in lives being lost.

The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland today issued a statement in support of the TRIPS waiver. It made the point that 75% of those in high-income countries have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with only 7% in low-income countries. As all present are aware, the latter countries have fragile health infrastructure and weak economies and are unable to cope with the increased pressure caused by the pandemic. Resources are diverted from other important areas such as HIV and malaria as a result. There is no doubt that an unprecedented human and health crisis is taking place before our eyes. We have to advance the global waiver in order to overcome Covid for medical reasons as well as moral ones. Our place in the world is important.

The Minister for Health announced yesterday that Ireland is to donate another 3 million Covid-19 vaccines, which is very welcome. Adding that to the vaccinations that have already been supported by Ireland through COVAX, it is a really big commitment. It means that, essentially, a vaccine has been provided on behalf of each person in this country to people who need it. UNICEF had a really strong campaign urging people to get their vaccine and pay for another vaccine. I know that so many people in this country have taken that up. I thank all those who have done so. When there is a call-out to the Irish people, they are just wonderful in terms of their voluntary commitments and donations. All too often, they are a step ahead of us in these Houses in terms of showing solidarity. Those measures are important. We can never do enough. We have to be at the forefront of the global response and use our influence within the EU and the Commission to ensure that those who need vaccines get them.

I warmly congratulate Senators Higgins and Ruane and the other signatories on bringing forward the motion. It is a worthy motion and discussion. I do not think there is any fundamental disagreement on the principles behind it. Rather, it is a question of how these things are achieved. I welcome the motion. No matter what position Members take on it, it is important that it has been brought to the floor of the House. I also welcome my colleague, friend and near neighbour, the Minister of State, Deputy English. I will say in a very non-partisan way that he is a doer. That is an objective fact. If anything that comes out of the discussion tonight can be achieved, he will do it and get after it.

I agree that the statistic cited by Senator Higgins of 5.8% of people living in Africa being fully vaccinated is a very disappointing one. It is a bizarrely low figure. The figure of 27% of healthcare workers is also low. Obviously, all Members are aware of the principle that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, and the risk of variants in that context. There is a problem in eastern Europe as well. Although what we are discussing here is important, there are other issues and variables. There is a problem in several eastern European states where, because of a traditional fear of the state and totalitarianism, there is a reluctance to accept the vaccine. I am aware that in Georgia the figure is 30% acceptance. That is a dominant trend in many countries in eastern Europe.

Vaccine production will be at 12 billion doses by the end of 2021. The EU has exported 1.4 billion doses to 150 countries. It has provided €46 billion in support of poorer countries and given €3.2 billion to the COVAX programme. Ireland has given 3 million vaccines to low-income countries. They have gone to places such as Uganda, Nigeria and Indonesia. Those are important statistics. As I stated, team Europe has mobilised €46 billion in support of partner countries. Obviously, the COVAX programme is very important and we have been a very strong supporter of it. The first 500,000 doses reached Nigeria in November. More than 100,000 went to Indonesia and more than 300,000 to Uganda. Ireland has given €7 million to COVAX. Those are the positives.

Where some of the difficulties arise here, and the Minister of State will probably elaborate on this later, is that we operate our trade relationships and trading situation within the EU. The EU is our overall trading negotiator, and we are a part of that. Intellectual property is the domain of the WTO, and there is an interaction there. While that is frustrating for a small country like Ireland, it is the truth.

EU countries are suggesting something less than a total TRIPS waiver. Regarding compulsory licences, the year remains open in respect of discussing with the WTO the licensing system that merits clarification. EU countries want to swiftly grant compulsory licences. A meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, 16 December, to discuss bilateral contact between delegations and a possible way forward on this. Some progress might be achieved tomorrow. The EU's stated position is that it wants to continue dialogue with WTO members and explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to Covid vaccines. They want to go on negotiating within it.

Senator Higgins is dismissive of some of the arguments but there is a certain logic to them. She did say that even if the TRIPS waiver was introduced worldwide tomorrow morning, it would take up to three months, in her assessment, to get production systems going. There is an argument regarding production and distribution systems. We are all on the same page here. It is how we get the end result. Our amendment to the motion is purely the modus vivendi by which we get the end result, but there is no objection to the principle here.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to debate this important subject. I am very sorry that the Government has chosen to put forward an amendment to this great motion. That amendment underpins the Government's approach, which is not to rock the boat when it comes to dealing with anything trade-related or commercial. I preface what I say by referring to Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine. When asked why he did not patent the vaccine, he said it was because he wanted to be good ancestor. We should take that on board and reflect on it.

I open my contribution by acknowledging the massive effort by all in the pharmaceutical industry to find a vaccine which at worst minimises the effects of Covid-19 on those unfortunate enough to become infected or at best provides total immunity. Of course, we now know that this virus is mutating. Where it will ultimately end up is anybody's guess. I heard a UK Minister say this morning that we are likely to have to live with this for several years. In a recent article, the People's Vaccine Alliance revealed that companies behind the two most successful Covid vaccines - Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna - are making a combined profit of €65,000 a minute. While I fully understand about the tough world of business - John Maynard Keynes spoke about the animal instincts of capitalism - such principles cannot be applied to human beings, which is what is happening in the world today. It is a case of profit over humans.

The world has lived with Covid-19 for almost two years. Recorded loss of life stands at 5.32 million. Unrecorded loss of life is estimated to be somewhere close to 20 million. We have seen the capacity of the virus to mutate with the onset of Omicron, the impact of which is not yet fully understood. Oxfam tells us that recent communication with the WHO has highlighted that six times more booster shots are being administered around the world than are primary doses in the underdeveloped world.

The contribution Ireland is making through the donation of vaccines is a drop in the ocean when one considers the number of people waiting for them. Those people sitting in the boardrooms of the pharmaceutical companies who developed the current range of Covid-19 vaccines and congratulating themselves on the profits they are making for their shareholders from the wealthiest countries in the world should perhaps pause for thought. Can they legitimately claim ownership of the property rights given the amount of money governments have pumped in? Senator Higgins referred to billions of euro, pounds and dollars being pumped into the development of the vaccines, in addition to advance orders for several tens of millions of doses more than any country needed. There are billions of unvaccinated people throughout the world. While that remains the case, this virus will continue to mutate freely through unvaccinated regions and come back to bite those who cherish their intellectual property rights so much. The priority must be to agree to a waiver of copyright and intellectual property rights and share all of the design and patents needed to ramp up production.

The Minister of State might address the following questions Oxfam asked me to put to the Minister. Given the TRIPS waiver would create a generic market for low-income countries but maintain the existing market and intellectual property protections for rich countries, as happened during the AIDS pandemic, how will this impact companies' incentives to innovate and produce new drugs when their main market will be protected under the TRIPS waiver? How does Ireland propose to balance its human rights obligations in taking a position on the TRIPS waiver, particularly in view of the fact that a petition to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination argues that countries opposing removing intellectual property barriers on all Covid-19 medical technologies through the TRIPS waiver is facilitating the inequitable and racially discriminatory roll-out of the vaccines and other Covid-19 healthcare technologies? As this was a test case, Ireland will be impacted by those deliberations. Given the evidence against the workability of compulsory licences, can the Minister of State explain how compulsory licensing will work in practice, especially if it does not provide generic producers with the necessary trade secrets to produce vaccines? How are generic producers to access trade secrets and blueprints under any proposed compulsory licence system, other than via the flexibility of TRIPS? Whose advice has the Government sought in agreeing to this approach? What generic pharmaceutical companies or academic experts has the Government consulted in agreeing to it? Will the Minister of State agree to meet with the relevant generic industry and academic experts on the issue in the coming days?

I heard about us being part of the EU and sticking with European rules. Ireland can be a leader or a follower. If we are a follower, we are a weak country. We must stand proud and stand by our fellow human beings in the world. I am certainly not prepared to stand by quietly and watch millions of people die and I thank my colleagues from the Civil Engagement Group and Senator Higgins in particular, who always speaks up on human rights issues. This is a human rights issue. If we fail to ensure that everybody in this world has fair access to a Covid-19 vaccine, we will open the door to this virus coming back with a vociferous bite to our bum and making us wake up as thousands of our own die. Mutations are what we need to guard against.

I find this debate deeply upsetting.

It is a disgrace that we even have to have a debate because, to me, this is a no-brainer. It is not a trade issue but a human rights issue. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment which wanted to discuss this issue. I wondered why that committee would discuss it when it is a human rights issue. I do not know why it falls under enterprise, trade and employment, which is a shallow place to put this significant issue.

For those who do not know - it took me a while to get my head around it - TRIPS stands for trade-related aspects of intellectual property, IP, rights. It is too important an issue to use the acronym all the time. Nearly two years after the pandemic commenced, flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement, including compulsory licensing, have not been used by any country to increase production of vaccines despite many experienced manufacturers around the world being ready and willing to make hundreds of millions of doses, including in places such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal, Denmark and Canada. In fact, generic pharmaceutical companies, such as Biolyse Pharma in Canada, and leading academic experts in intellectual property law, such as Dr. Aisling McMahon of Maynooth University with whom I had a meeting last week, and Dr. Luke McDonagh of the London School of Economics, have outlined why this approach is not suitable. It involves a cumbersome, inefficient, time-consuming and complicated legal process involving hundreds of patents and must be repeated using a country-by-country, patent-by-patent approach. That is ridiculous in the middle of a global pandemic. It does not address other key IP rights for vaccines such as trade secrets. A compulsory licence arrangement would give permission for the production of vaccines only after a timely legal process, while people are dying every day, but would not empower generic producers to be given the relevant blueprints on how to produce the vaccines.

A growing number of voices on the international stage are beginning to recognise the urgency with which this issue needs to be addressed. As Senators know, last week the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution calling on the EU to support the granting of a TRIPS waiver to enhance timely global access to affordable Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics by addressing global production constraints and supply shortages. It reminds me George Orwell's words that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Pfizer will make €36 billion profit from Covid vaccines this year. The Government has given €7 million to COVAX, as Senator Joe O'Reilly pointed out earlier. Let us imagine what that €7 million could have done if it had been given to countries to build manufacturing plants. They could have done that by now given that the pandemic has been going on for nearly two years. We know the saying, "Do not give a man a fish; give him a fishing rod". That is what we should be doing. That is what this is all about at the end of the day. It is not about condescending rich countries giving other countries some money but about seeing them as equals. That is what is happening here. We do not see them as humans or as equals. In 2021, it is an absolute disgrace. Thanks to social media, we can see what is happening all over the world. We know this is wrong and unfair.

The TRIPS waiver is dividing people. We know how it worked with the AIDS virus. This has nothing to do with the EU or what it is saying. As a country and a people, we know what it is like when people do not get what they need. We know that from the Famine. This should not be debated. I know I am a Government Senator but this TRIPS waiver is really important. It is so sad that we have to argue about it because everybody cares about humans. Our job as Government politicians is to show that we care about people. On the TRIPS waiver, people have to look into their hearts and ask how we can justify objecting to this, which would be wrong.

It would be great to see Ireland leading the way on this, as we have done in many other situations all around the world. I ask those in government who are opposed to the TRIPS waiver for whatever reason - I do not care what it is - to look into their hearts and ask themselves to think about morals and ethics in this instance. We are all humans and we are all equal, from the cleaning lady to the woman with eight kids in South Africa. It does not make a difference who we are. There is no debate on this. We are all equal and deserve this vaccine or, at least, the choice to take it.

I heard someone from Oxfam say that the vaccines that we, the great people of the West and the rich countries, donate often arrive out of date and cannot be used. It is a joke. We have to get this right. It is too important, even if we are being completely selfish for our own reasons. I know we are an island but we will not stop people from coming here. If we do not sort this out globally, we will never sort it out nationally. That is the bottom line. Even if we do not care about anybody else, we have to do this for ourselves.

As I said, we do not live in an Orwellian. All animals are equal; all humans are equal.

Well said, Senator Garvey. It is always nice to see the Minister of State.

Is the Senator sharing time?

I wish to share with Senator Boylan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I agree with every word Senator Garvey uttered. I was delighted to hear her calling for a TRIPS waiver. I was delighted to hear Senator O'Loughlin say she supports a TRIPS waiver. I must be clear on this point, however. If a Senator votes for the Government amendment, he or she is voting against a TRIPS waiver. There is no debate about that because the TRIPS waiver is clearly referred to in Senator Higgins's motion and it is not in the amendment. It has been removed by the Government. Colleagues are here from the Council of Europe. They are people I respect immensely who stand up for human rights. I ask them, genuinely, not to vote for this amendment because the issue is too important.

I was so disappointed when I saw the amendment. I know Senator Higgins went out of her way in terms of how she drew up the motion. There is no criticism of the Government in this motion, which would have been easy to do. If I had drafted it, I probably would have criticised it. Senator Higgins crafted it superbly. She makes a clear and public call to the Government to speak out for a TRIPS waiver. That has been removed in the Government amendment, yet from all the arguments we have heard, we know that is the wrong stance. Anyone who attended the meeting on Tuesday that Senator Higgins organised will have heard the spokesperson from Oxfam. Last week in the Chamber, I spoke about 5 million deaths. I was wrong; the true figure is closer to 17 million deaths. I do not even know how to express that. There have been 17 million deaths. As we were told yesterday, each day that the European Union and the Government refuses to speak out clearly and call for a TRIPS waiver costs people's lives.

Senator Garvey dealt expertly with the Government countermotion which refers to TRIPS flexibilities. She is absolutely correct. As all the world's human rights bodies have highlighted, that is no good and of no use. An article on the Public Citizen website states:

mRNA vaccines have 100 key components, many of which are IP protected, and produced in multiple jurisdictions. Thus, in order to manufacture a “generic” COVID-19 mRNA vaccine using TRIPS flexibilities, the relevant producer would have to seek compulsory licenses for each IP-protected commodity in its country of manufacturer and export, which would require the compulsory licensing cooperation of the exporting country and input producer. It would likewise have to seek a compulsory license allowing for import of each such component and allowing for production of the vaccine. Finally, if a producer wished to export in order to create a viable market, it would have to coordinate further and follow intractable WTO procedures to seek additional compulsory licenses in other countries to allow import and use of the vaccine. These ... complexities that are virtually insurmountable.

That is what the Government amendment is calling for Senators to support. With all respect, I ask them not to do that. If they cannot vote for Senator Higgins' motion, find something else to do when it comes time to vote. When the history of the biggest crisis humanity has faced is written, do Senators want their names beside an amendment that denied and removed the call for a TRIPS waiver? Let us put our party badges to one side just for this evening and do what is right.

It is so clear. On the one hand, there are the medical experts, the key medical people we know and respect. What is the line we all believe in? Follow the science and the medical advice. Do we not say that? Is that not what we followed throughout this pandemic, and rightly so? All these people are saying we desperately need a TRIPS waiver. As others have pointed out, the spurious arguments about reluctance to put vaccines into people's arms is just not true. There are manufacturing sites ready to go within three months. We have been waiting for this for a year already. It is unfortunate but true that the EU has been the main stumbling block. We have a voice. Ireland has a voice. It is wrong that, to date, the Government has not used that voice. Why do we not unite, all of us together, to call on the Government to make a clear call for a TRIPS waiver so we can begin to heal this world and begin to protect everybody, not least of course ourselves?

I thank my colleague for allowing me a minute of speaking time on this as I really want to put on record my support for the TRIPS waiver. There are matters that are beyond party politics. We are all living through this pandemic. As politicians and legislators, there are periods when we want to be on the right side of history and this is one of them. We really want to be on the right side of history when it comes to this TRIPS waiver. As Senator Gavan has said, Members should go missing rather than vote against this TRIPS waiver. Doing so will lead to them being judged by history.

I want to flag something that galls me. There are many arguments about why we cannot have a TRIPS waiver and one centres on a lack of necessary production capacity in other countries. What galls me about such arguments is not only that they are patronising and false but they perpetuate the colonial mindset that we have in the global north that countries cannot do this and we must do it for them. It is the idea that we must hold their hand. It is what we are saying to these countries but analysis indicates there are 100 suitable manufacturing sites ready to go if we give this TRIPS waiver. As others have said, the production of mRNA vaccines is less complex than traditional vaccines. It is bad enough that the pharmaceutical industry is putting out those red herrings. We cannot be handmaidens to those companies. We cannot peddle their myths. They are not true and the facts are on the side of a TRIPS waiver. The Government must decide tonight whether it is on that side as well.

I pay tribute to Senator Higgins for drafting this motion. As Senator Gavan has said, she went out of her way to draft a motion that Senators on the other side of the House could support. This is not a matter of party political differences but a moral issue among a group of humans sitting in this Chamber in the middle of a pandemic.

With Covid-19, the ultimate question is when we will end the pandemic. We have asked this of the Government when we have seen much legislation come through the House in recent months. All of that legislation is part of the armoury in fighting Covid-19 but there is a gaping hole in our response, which is a truly collective, internationalist and global effort in vaccines. We pride ourselves on being a charitable country and the land of 100,000 welcomes. Charity does not stand for anything, however, if we do not have justice. This motion asks not for charity but justice in ensuring vaccine equity across the world.

The reaction to the emerging Omicron variant two weeks ago encapsulated the problem with approaching this from a charitable perspective. Our approach has become fear-based, leading to travel bans, particularly if the variant comes predominantly from the global south. We did not have the quick movement to travel bans when the Delta variant was coming from the UK.

We know from the scientific advice across the world that what will stop the emergence of the variant is access to vaccines. We have warned repeatedly by the World Health Organization and epidemiologists that the single biggest factor in the development of new variants is allowing the virus to spread indiscriminately around the world. The TRIPS waiver, which we have been discussing for well over a year, is vital to ensuring vaccines are available at a global level for all those who need them. The time for talking, debating and amending in parliaments across the world should be long over.

Gordon Brown, who is now an adviser to the World Health Organization, noted a few months ago that 40% of the Covid-19 deaths on the African continent had occurred since August. At the start of August, we had nearly finished vaccinating our adult population here. The World Health Organization recently highlighted that six times more booster vaccines had been administered daily around the globe than primary doses in lower income countries. In those circumstances, our booster campaign should not be a source of national pride but rather an example of how we have failed other countries. While it is wonderful that we are able to give out booster vaccines and keep our population safe, the question that strikes me is whether there is any point in giving boosters when we will be in this rodeo again in a couple of months as more variants emerge. It is short-term thinking and we are looking at events through the lens of self-interest in seeking to end this global crisis.

The TRIPS waiver is a question of suspending international property rights and prioritising the saving of lives over profits. The industry, funded by national governments and taxpayers, has not shared the property rights voluntarily. In the absence of that, a TRIPS waiver is vital. We could look at another pandemic, as during the HIV pandemic a waiver on trade in intellectual property rights was used to boost drug supply. Such a process should be implemented again. The facilitation of generic production in countries like India and South Africa helped developing countries through the HIV and AIDS pandemic. We know such a process can work well.

It is simply the fundamentally right action to take in every respect. It is not just the West that must live with Covid-19 and it is not just the West that is currently facing the worst impact of Covid-19. We must increase the rates of vaccination worldwide. We know at this stage because we have had waves of the virus that as variants emerge, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. We must take collective and global action. We are facing into a future of never-ending variants, and that is a consequence of failing to vaccinate as many people as we can everywhere. Solidarity and collective action will end the pandemic and make this virus endemic. That must be at the heart of Ireland's response.

I am disappointed that the response to a very balanced and well-worded motion from Senator Higgins has been that a Government amendment, albeit one that did not originate among Government Senators, has been moved which effectively renders the motion useless for Members voting in the House. I echo the call of previous speakers. If Senators cannot vote against the Government amendment, they should go missing and show people their intention by simply not being here.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. I know him as somebody who is very compassionate and with a real interest in matters like this and human rights. I commend Senator Higgins and her colleagues on what is a very well-worded motion in considering this issue. I probably cannot express my views in the same way as Senator Garvey, with such compassion and emotion, but I share her views on the matter.

I have spoken to my Fianna Fáil colleagues about this specific issue and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has said he is personally in favour of a TRIPS waiver. I am concerned that the Government did not consult the Fianna Fáil Seanad group before tabling this amendment, despite I and others expressing a very strong view on the need for a TRIPS waiver or a discussion on the matter from very early on. We have raised that on a number of occasions.

Many people have stated, correctly, that we will not get out of this pandemic until everybody is out of it. I also want to speak about our values, not just Irish values but European Union values. Everybody is speaking about companies like Pfizer and the profits they make. I support free and fair trade and I believe in the potential of these companies. We must remember that very significant state investment was made to support much of the research carried out. In solving such problems, public private partnerships are essential. We must have partners not just to solve this pandemic but also to solve future global crises. It will be a case of having all hands on deck, whether people are involved in the public or private sectors.

I am a Europhile and strongly believe in the importance of the European Union on the global stage and the positive values the European Union can bring to the world.

In an increasingly G2 world dominated by the US and China - I have major problems with the values of both countries, particularly, as colleagues will know, the values espoused by China - the European Union can be that other voice at the table, one that expresses values of human rights, the rule of law, fairness and inclusion. That was the basis on which the European Union was founded. During the 1950s, in the post-war scenario, Europe was destroyed. The principles of peace and prosperity guided Europe throughout that time.

One of the things of which my party, Fianna Fáil, has always been proudest is that ours is a party that supports multilateralism, has supported EU membership and believes in support for overseas development aid. That is the reason this Government sought a seat on the UN Security Council and Ireland has played an active role at global level. I am hugely proud that we are the only country in the world that has taken part in every UN peacekeeping mission since the blue helmets started to engage. That is why I have a problem with the approach being taken here. It goes against what I believe to be Irish and European Union values. At the start of this pandemic, when there was criticism of the European Union, the Union did not put in place an export ban. It said that, as part of our values, it was important we not have in place an export ban, which the UK and the US put in place. We saw the EU supporting those general principles, but there seems to be a move back from that position. I welcome the fact that the EU is now gaining greater competence in the area of healthcare, particularly in tackling some of these global issues.

I am a multilateralist. I passionately believe we must have international organisations. I believe in the rule of law and that there has to be co-operation. On an issue like this, which is a global challenge, we should not be arguing over intellectual property rights. I fully accept that we have to protect IP rights but I cannot understand why on an issue like this there is such an approach. I believe that nearly every Senator personally feels as passionately about this as I do.

Senator Higgins's motion is worded very fairly. If it were a motion that criticised the Government and so on, I would come back on it because at a domestic level we have done a wonderful job on the roll-out of the vaccination programme. People forget that. There are glitches, but on the roll-out of the vaccine campaign, even the roll-out of the booster campaign, Ireland is doing extraordinarily well. However, we should be, as Senator Moynihan said, a guiding light to the rest of the world. I was not consulted about the Government's countermotion. I do not believe it reflects the spirit of my party, the spirit of what this country believes in or the spirit of the European Union and for those reasons, I will not vote for it.

I commend my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, on his contribution and on taking a stand on the issue. There was an email from Oxfam that stood out for me. I will not expand much on it. It said that a failure to vaccinate the world is not just economically and epidemiologically foolish but also diplomatically and morally unacceptable.

Before I go any further, I wish to commend the work of Senator Higgins. We signed a letter to the Taoiseach before the summer, I think, and the Taoiseach, although he did not commit to supporting a TRIPS waiver, did commit to engaging with the European Commission and member states on the EU position. I noted with interest that when the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, was before the Seanad on Tuesday, 7 December, he said he had an open mind on the suggestion of a TRIPS waiver. He said:

I have always said that if we receive a WTO proposal in writing, we will look at it. That has not happened yet.

I thought it was quite weak on the part of the Tánaiste to say that if the Government were to get a proposal, it could look at it. The proposals are coming left, right and centre from the World Health Organization. We need to heed those calls from the director-general of the World Health Organization and most world leaders that the TRIPS waiver is needed as part of the solution to combat the pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people do not have access to a vaccine because they were born in the wrong place, basically, as far as vaccine distribution is concerned. The waiving of patents should have been sorted at the very start.

I will not expand any further on the points that have been raised about the millions in public moneys that have gone into funding these vaccines. I call on the Government and Seanad colleagues to do as Senator Malcolm Byrne has done and back the motion. I am not sure how Senator Byrne will do that but I commend him on it.

Like Senator Warfield, I acknowledge, commend and thank Senator Higgins for bringing this motion before us. I do not have a great deal more to add beyond what has been said by those colleagues arguing in support of the motion, including Senators from the other side of the Chamber. They have laid out effectively and clearly the health, human rights, justice and economic rationale for the Government implementing a TRIPS waiver. They have also made clear the political and ethical arguments as to why, from the perspective of our experiences in Ireland and our ethos and core belief system as a country and as a people, we should be to the forefront in ensuring international solidarity, particularly at a time like this.

The clue is in the word "pandemic". The last thing I want to do is to descend into clichés, but the fundamentals are the following. This is a pandemic. Therefore, it requires a global response. This has been said repeatedly. My colleague, Senator Gavan, outlined it very eloquently. The scientists and health experts have repeatedly and consistently said - at times they have pleaded with governments around the world - to follow their advice, and their very clear advice is that no one is safe until we are all safe. That is what tonight's motion is about. Senator Malcolm Byrne may not need or even want my endorsement of the decision he has taken, but it is what we on this side of the Chamber are asking colleagues to do. It is to do the right thing, not least given the time of year, when we think of people who are less well off around the world, to extend solidarity and to live by some of the sentiment that will be expressed over the coming days and weeks.

I hope the Minister of State will reflect on the debate tonight. I know he will. I hope he will reflect on what his Government colleagues are saying in the Chamber and take a lead in ensuring the Government does the right thing, withdraws its amendment and supports the motion in all our names.

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am so proud to co-sponsor this motion with my colleagues and friends, Senators Higgins and Ruane. I commend Senator Higgins on her leadership on this issue and her passion for fighting for what is right. I am just blown away by this debate.

I commend Senators Malcolm Byrne, O'Loughlin and Garvey on the stand they have taken. It gives me hope. I am not sure whether any of us two years ago would have anticipated that we would still be talking about Covid-19 today but we need to acknowledge that this reality is our own doing. As Senator Malcolm Byrne stated, we should be proud of the success of our domestic vaccine roll-out, but it means nothing while significant portions of the international community remain unvaccinated.

I will focus on two arguments that speak to the importance of Ireland and the European Commission supporting a TRIPS waiver. The first is that it is immoral for us not to take the actions within our capacity to support the expedient production and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines around the world. The second is the domestic cost of our inaction.

We are undoubtedly privileged to have been able to access vaccines as freely and readily as we have done, but this is not our birthright. That we were born into the wealthy global north is a matter of complete luck, which we need to acknowledge. How can we continue to block the expedited production and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines in the global south while the pandemic continues to rage and people continue to suffer and lose their lives? We have been told many times that we are all in this together but as long as we continue to block the expedited production and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines in the global south, that is just empty rhetoric. As philosopher Professor Peter Singer has said, if it is within our power to prevent the suffering of another person, it is our moral imperative to do so. It does not matter if that person is close to us or far away because suffering is suffering. The reality is that people in the global south are suffering more in this pandemic than those of us in the global north, both in terms of public health and the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. While the European Union has donated vaccines to the global south through the COVAX scheme, the number of vaccines actually delivered to countries is less than those donated. If we persist with the status quo, we will never get ahead of this pandemic. To rely on the charity of developed economies is to fail in our moral duty to the vulnerable in the global south. Where governments in the global south are purchasing vaccines, this accounts for a far greater proportion of their health budgets than for governments like ours. As a result, we need to drive down the cost of vaccines. Generic production is an important piece of this puzzle. We cannot rely on the market to address this issue because it will not.

We must consider the benefit of supporting the TRIPS waiver in terms of our own self-interest. At a selfish level, we should want Covid vaccines to be delivered to the most people as quickly as possible. This is the best way of ensuring that life here in Ireland returns to a version of itself that is closer to the one we left behind in March 2020. By accelerating the vaccination of the majority of the global population, we limit the opportunity for new variants to develop. This is common sense. It brings benefits in terms of domestic public health but it would also make a return to normal functioning in Irish society and our economy certain.

In pandering to the interests of large pharmaceutical companies, we may protect certain kinds of inward investment but what is the financial cost of blocking the TRIPS waiver if we factor in the need for public health restrictions that shut down portions of the economy and put large numbers of people out of work? Are we content to let pharmaceutical companies make unprecedented levels of profit at the expense of Irish people and society? Why is it that certain industries, such as the entertainment industry, have to shoulder the burden but large pharmaceutical companies do not? We are all carrying this burden but the pharmaceutical companies are walking away with not a bother on them.

We are now entering the third year of this pandemic. Surely it is time to reflect on our successes and failures to adjust our strategy moving forward. It seems that vaccines alone are not going to see the end of this pandemic but they will continue to play a central role. The question we need to ask ourselves is what role do we want Ireland to play in guiding the global community out of the darkest days of this pandemic. I am clear as to what I feel Ireland should do, that is, support this motion on a TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and use our diplomatic influence to encourage other EU member states and the European Commission to do the same. It is not only the just and right thing to do, but also what is required of us to bring this pandemic to its conclusion.

This is about saving thousands, if not millions, of lives. The Minister of State has the power to do the right thing. Even Government Members are not against this motion. Will he please withdraw the amendment and do the right thing? He is a good man. Most Fine Gael Members are good people with good hearts who want to do the right thing.

I thank the Minister of State for joining us. I welcome this crucial discussion on the motion tabled by Senators Higgins and Ruane. Senator Higgins and I had an opportunity to discuss the matter previously but not with as much time as was needed to discuss a topic of this importance.

I want immediate access for people around the world, particularly in low-income countries, to vaccines. I remember the complete and utter joy that I felt when I first heard last year about the vaccines being developed. I remember reading about the first generation Turkish couple in Germany who were working as researchers in BioNTech, which developed one of the vaccines. I remember thinking how amazing it was that we were seeing people who had emigrated to another country and who, within the space of one generation, were top-class researchers with amazing qualifications and working within one of Germany's top pharma companies, which began as a start-up. They stood on the shoulders of the many vaccine researchers and developers who came before them.

When the vaccines first came out, however, production was not equal across the pharmaceutical companies that were developing and delivering them. We saw that there were challenges in delivery and production within those facilities last year. I have looked into some of the research on this topic and I know that there are many challenges to immediate action, but people want to see immediate action because people across the world need these vaccines now. We need existing manufacturing facilities to ramp up. We have spoken about how there are other facilities that could be brought on stream in other countries but I remember how existing production facilities last year could not meet demand. At a practical level, what would happen with brand new production facilities? Our pharma companies have to step up.

This is where Ireland is in a wonderful position in the UN and the EU. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has driven our position at a global level within the UN. We have a voice, and it is being used to ensure that there is vaccine access. If we do not have access, there will not be equity. We need it as soon as possible. This is something that I want to see the Government fighting for on behalf of all of us. Every person in this Chamber wants the same thing, that is, our loved ones to be safe, but that is not good enough when we see the mutations like Omicron coming at us. Our immunocompromised are now looking at a fourth dose, never mind a third one. These vaccines must be available immediately.

In the World Trade Organization, Ireland is one of 164 members. The Minister of State might speak to us about how Ireland is driving change within these types of agreements because from what I understand, it is by consensus only. How do we drive that type of change? How do we get immediate access now by looking at compulsory licensing? How do we force our pharmaceutical companies to take a more proactive part and participate here? This conversation has brought many matters of concern. Although Ireland as a country be small, we have a strong voice and have positions in very influential bodies. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this motion. I thank Senator Higgins and her colleagues for tabling the motion on the TRIPS waiver. I know it is something the Senator has genuinely worked on for a long period. I recognise that and it is well recognised around the House that her work on this matter is genuine. We can see from the support shown by her colleagues right across the House for her motion that there is an understanding of that.

The Government and I recognise that the motion goes a long way to achieving the balance and get full support. I will table a motion that sets out the Government's position because the Senator's motion is not fully consistent with the Government's position at this time. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, discussed this matter here last week. He set out that we have a very open mind when it comes to parts of the TRIPS proposal that the Senator put forward. There are no written proposals yet in a formal response. Very often, when one attends the WTO talks, there is a written text and that is what is negotiated. We are prepared to view that as and when it is put forward as a written formal proposal but it is not at that stage yet. The Tánaiste outlined that position earlier in the week as well.

In a debate here last week, the Tánaiste clearly did say that the Government is a very strong supporter of vaccine equity in the world when he stated, “Morally we need to make sure the world is vaccinated.” We all agree with the principles though differ on how to achieve that, and have different views and timings for that. Everybody in this House, without a doubt, comes at this from the same moral background and while all want to see the same result, there are different ways to get there and achieve that. It is important that everyone here expressed their views tonight and support the general principles behind the motion. Senator Joe O'Reilly expressed the view that we all agree with this and come from the same position but, again, the issue is how to achieve this and get the balance right. That is the view that the Government has to take. The whole of the Government must work through this, as we have been doing, through our European colleagues at the WTO talks because we are part of a European discussion group and representative body when it comes to that.

I want to be clear that Ireland will continue to do all we can to help make sure countries worldwide have access to Covid vaccines for their people. We, as a country and a Government, strongly believe that and I think that everyone has expressed that clear view here tonight. I will convey that to Government colleagues and will share it with the Cabinet, which will inform the ongoing discussions in this area and the ongoing discussions at European and WTO levels. I will make sure without a doubt that the views of this House are well reflected in my report back to Government after this debate.

We will do so as universal and equitable access to vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19 and Governments in the developed world must continue do more to ensure this. We are very clear on that. We have been very clear in our public commentary on that and Senator Higgins will know that as well. We will continue to work with those countries that have not yet built up the capability or infrastructure needed to roll out a vaccine programme. We will do so through our aid programmes and help with the likes of refrigeration, distribution and administration because all of these are needed to help with the roll-out of a successful vaccine programme. Access to the vaccines and having them, regardless where they are manufactured, is one issue and, again, there are different ways to achieve that. The roll-out of vaccines, the associated administration and reaching the people who need vaccines is another very complicated area. We all know that we have to continue to work on all of these aspects as well.

The motion we are discussing is not a magic pen. I am sure that Senator Higgins and her team understand that too. She genuinely believes that her motion is part of the solution and I recognise that but in itself, her motion will not solve the problem. The Irish Government is involved in many of the aspects, and rightly so, because we have a very complicated aim to make sure that the vaccines are accessible to everybody no matter where they live, what their address is or in what part of the continent they are in. We will do these things because it is the right thing to do. We will do this work alongside our international partners such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, CEPI, Gavi, and the World Health Organization.

In addressing this specific motion, it is important to point out that TRIPS is an international legal agreement between all the member nations of the World Trade Organization. Therefore, any proposal for a potential variation or waiver of the current IP protections under the TRIPS Agreement is for negotiation at the WTO, where Ireland is one of 164 members. I have attended these events and they are extremely complicated. The debate is very often around the wording and written text. A lot of work and negotiations is done well in advance of these sessions, and on a continuous basis, as well as on formal occasions. That being said, Ireland will engage with the European Commission and other member states on the EU position for the WTO discussions on how the flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement can contribute towards increasing the manufacturing capacity and the equitable access to vaccines around the world.

The EU continues to be committed to an open and comprehensive dialogue with all of the WTO members to explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This is why the EU proposed an alternative to the TRIPS waiver proposal. This proposal is targeted and pragmatic. It aims at ensuring that Governments can resort to compulsory licences, including to export to countries with no or limited manufacturing capacities in the most cost-effective manner, and the most effective and timely manner, that is adapted to the circumstances of a pandemic.

The EU will consider any other pragmatic proposal for a TRIPS waiver, should a further proposal be submitted. The EU has stressed that contacts between key delegations appear to be the only means, and the best means, of advancing discussion at this point. It is important to note that the EU has been genuinely flexible in seeking to find a solution to make it easier for governments to allow third parties to manufacture Covid-19 pharmaceutical products. By extension, we have an open mind in Ireland on the alternative suggestion of a TRIPS waiver, which the Tánaiste referenced here on 7 December. I suggest Senators read the transcript in addition to listening to what I have to say tonight. Again, the Tánaiste clearly said, and the Government is clearly saying, if we receive a WTO proposal in writing then we will look at it and that has not happened yet. The Tánaiste, in this space, has met the United States Trade Representative, Ms Katherine Tai, and said we would happily look at a proposal if one lands and, to be clear, it has not yet.

The EU position has repeatedly made clear that it sees intellectual property as part of the solution to the pandemic and not the problem. Consideration of this matter must balance the need to encourage and continue to incentivise industry, as well as governments, to carry out research, innovate and develop new medicines, and medicinal products, during this public health crisis, and any other public health crisis. I totally and absolutely accept the point that Senator Higgins and many others Senators put forward earlier that the work on Covid has been endorsed and supported through the public purse of many countries.

Intellectual property protections are a crucial incentive for the ongoing and continuous research and development of new vaccines, modified vaccines adapted to new variants, and new medicines and treatments for Covid-19, as well as investment in production capacity. The public purse supports these endeavours and there is also a lot of private money. We continue to encourage that innovation and drive to always find new vaccines, new medicines and new supports for Covid-19, and for many others that will come at us as well. However, we want to strike the right balance and I know that Senators will understand that it is important for us to get this right.

Intellectual property continues to play an important role as an enabler that contributes to our overall objective of ramping up production of Covid vaccines and medicines. It is clear that in a global emergency, like this pandemic, if voluntary licensing fails then compulsory licensing is a legitimate tool to scale up production and that we are ready to facilitate this.

Experts agree that the current Covid vaccines were produced in record time as industry was able to piggyback on years of investment, of previous investment and previous innovation, in other vaccines production which had been incentivised, in part, by a supportive IP regime. We must view this issue in the whole and not just as one issue. We must view this as part of the overall IP regime that we are part of. Again, I recognise that in this case there was a massive contribution of public moneys from all over the world and Ireland was a part of that.

Any solution must balance industry's research and innovation costs, and the importance of maintaining a workable IP regime well into the future, with the importance of ensuring fair, equitable access to medicines and medicinal products during this public health crisis. The EU has been a leading exporter of vaccines. Out of a total of 2 billion doses produced since December 2020, the EU has exported over 1.4 billion doses to 150 countries.

The EU has also mobilised €46 billion in support of partner countries internationally and has committed €3.2 billion in international support to the COVAX programme. The EU’s target is to donate 700 million doses by mid-2022. It is also investing €1 billion to ramp up mRNA production capacity in Africa. Ireland will engage with the European Commission and other member states on the EU position for the WTO discussions.

As outlined by the Government yesterday, Ireland will donate an additional 3 million Covid-19 vaccines this year. This is in addition to Government’s previous commitment to donate 2 million vaccines to low-income countries as part of the COVAX programme. There is no issue with the end-of-use date on our vaccines, to be very clear. That is not something this Government has been part of. The donated vaccines have already been delivered to countries including Uganda, Nigeria and Indonesia. The first 500,000 Irish doses donated through COVAX reached Nigeria on 29 November; 112,800 vaccines arrived in Indonesia on 11 December; and a bilateral donation of over 335,000 vaccine doses was made to Uganda in September. A further consignment of 122,400 vaccines to Indonesia and 276,000 vaccines to Ghana are expected in the coming days.

Ireland has awarded €7 million to COVAX to facilitate the procurement of vaccines by low and middle income countries. This translates roughly to a further 1.2 million doses of vaccine donated by Ireland to low and middle income countries, and rightly so. This reflects who we are and our values as a nation, which have been clearly and passionately put forward by all speakers this evening.

I hope Senators will accept our credentials as a Government and that we are doing all we can to help ensure countries worldwide have better access to Covid vaccines for their people. We will continue to do so, reflecting the values the Irish people hold.

I look forward to hearing the remaining speakers on the motion. I recognise the effort to which Senators went to have a motion that could be supported without amendment. While I have tabled an amendment, I will not press it. It is not something on which we want to divide the House. However, it was important to set out and explain the Government's position as we approach this. I recognise that when it comes to the principles of what we want to achieve, we are all at one. All of is in both these Houses reflect the nation's values when it comes to this approach.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I sincerely thank colleagues from across the House for their engagement on this issue. I thank them for their heartfelt, genuine and intellectually rigorous contributions. So many of the points I wanted to make about why compulsory licensing does not work were made extremely well by others, including Senator Garvey.

This is a crucial diplomatic failure for the European Union. I am also passionate about the European Union. I worry when I see the Union losing credibility internationally by pursuing a policy that may have two years of gains for some companies but will lose the trust of much of the global south. I will not go through all of these points because I will not have time. They have been made extremely well.

I am glad the Minister is not pressing the amendment. Frankly, it did a disservice to the Government Senators who have spoken and the Government's own position. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, talked over eight months ago about wanting Ireland to take a stand. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has expressed personal support for a TRIPS waiver. Even the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, spoke of having an open mind.

I have to challenge one of the points which is extremely disingenuous, namely, the idea that we are waiting for a WTO proposal. This motion relates directly to the negotiations around the development of a WTO proposal. The European Commission represents us in the Council negotiations to develop proposals. There have been proposals on the table since October 2020. In June, that complicated discussion teasing out the text was meant to take place. I wanted Ireland to take a stronger stance and to speak out in favour of a TRIPS waiver. This amendment would have taken us backwards. It refers only to the alternative proposal, which is a proposal against a TRIPS waiver. That is the problem. That is what was in the language here. It also speaks specifically about only engaging in the issues of flexibilities within TRIPS. There is capacity, strategically, not in a uniform or messy way but through text, where different outcomes may happen in different countries, to temporarily waive the application of the international intellectual property regime. This would allow smaller and developing countries to take the actions while maintaining, if they so choose, the national intellectual property measures which we would have in Ireland. This is not a fall-off-a-cliff measure. A TRIPS waiver is the sensible thing which allows us to expedite vaccine roll-out.

On the issue of time, we should have started in spring but we certainly should be starting now so that in three months we will have more progress. It is possible. The mRNA vaccines, which are the most effective, are chemical rather than biologic and in that sense can be developed with support. We should not be sending countries back to the starting point. On a proposal from the WTO, its director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, appealed for a resolution in February 2022 and urged that we come out of that meeting with a TRIPS waiver so the clock can start on delivering the solutions which everybody wants.

I thank the Minister of State for his engagement. I ask him to engage with the likes of the People's Vaccine alliance, which has been requesting meetings with Ministers but has not yet been given one. This is a really important moment for us. It was mentioned that there is an important meeting tomorrow. Would it not be a powerful thing if we sent a signal from Ireland tonight that might influence that meeting tomorrow? It might be just the small thing that tips the balance towards a genuine solution being moved forward. Then maybe we could have a tiny fraction of the optimism we felt this time last year when we thought the world might work together towards a solution. Let Ireland be part of that in a positive way.

I thank the Minister of State for not pressing the amendment. I urge colleagues to support the motion if they can. It is really important and it should be passed by this House tonight.

In consultation with the Minister of State and as he has explained, considering the very balanced and reasonable-----

Under the rules, it has to be withdrawn.

I am not going to make a speech. It is just to say that given the very balanced and reasonable debate in the House, the sincere opinions held and the unity of purpose in the House on the issue, although we have moved the amendment we are not pressing it.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Motion agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.48 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 December 2021.
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