Suspension of the TRIPS Agreement during the COVID-19 pandemic?

India and South Africa are calling for the suspension of the convention in the WTO

At the WTO/TRIPS Council of 15 and 16 October 2020, India and South Africa submitted a TRIPS waiver request in which they propose that the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) should be (largely) suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to patent rights, this would affect other intellectual property rights such as designs, trade secrets and copyright and everything related to the pandemic, including not only vaccines and medicines but also medicinal products such as tests and ventilators.

The initiators argue that a TRIPS waiver would facilitate global access to COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and diagnostics. From their point of view, the protection of IP rights, such as patent protection under the WTO/TRIPS Agreement, creates barriers to access. India and South Africa's request has been discussed in the TRIPS Council since October 2020. Various WTO members1 support the request, while others reject it. The TRIPS Council reports regularly to the superordinate General Council on its discussions.


Switzerland's position

For Switzerland2, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic takes the highest priority, to protect the health of the Swiss population and that of people around the world so that normality can return to society and the economy as soon as possible. The goal is equitable, affordable and rapid global access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics against COVID-19.

Switzerland has always advocated internationally for universal access to healthcare. As is well known, this depends on a number of factors. These include the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS Agreement). The suspension of the TRIPS Agreement during the COVID-19 pandemic, as proposed by India and South Africa in the WTO, would not be conducive to achieving the above-mentioned goal from Switzerland’s point of view and would even be counterproductive. To respond to the pandemic, close and seamless collaboration is needed between all the relevant stakeholders, namely states and international organisations, universities, research institutions, pharmaceutical companies and non-governmental organisations.

This is why Switzerland is rejecting India and South Africa’s proposal in the WTO.

Patent protection ensures that, in addition to government funding, the necessary private investments are made in research and development. The TRIPS Agreement offers a reliable framework for the rights and obligations relating to the research results and supports companies, research institutes, universities and international organisations in establishing partnerships for the research, development and production of new medicines and vaccines and the mutual exchange of know-how and technology. The fact that, since the outbreak of the pandemic, several vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed, industrially produced and authorised in record time impressively demonstrates that this incentive system anchored in the TRIPS Agreement also works during a pandemic.

Switzerland is therefore convinced that suspending the established international legal framework would be the wrong approach. It would undermine the ongoing efforts of the partnerships mentioned to join forces in working towards the goal of ensuring global, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics against COVID-19 as rapidly as possible. This also applies to international initiatives such as Act-A and the COVAX Facility. Under the lead of the WHO, various stakeholders from the public and private sector are working together in these groups to enable access to COVID-10 vaccines in poorer countries. Switzerland also participates in these initiatives.

If the TRIPS Agreement were suspended, the WTO rules, which have been in force for over 25 years and accepted by 164 states, would no longer apply. Switzerland is convinced that established international rules provide an important basis, especially when dealing with a crisis.

Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the TRIPS waiver proposal and the role of IP protection in ensuring access to innovative medicines, vaccines and diagnostics for the treatment of COVID-19.


1In addition to the initiators, India and South Africa, the request is also formally supported by the group of African countries and the group of the least-developed countries (LDCs), as well as Bolivia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Venezuela (25.02.2021).
2Switzerland's position is coordinated by the federal agencies responsible for the Federal Council's foreign health policy (FDFA, SDC, FOPH, IPI, SECO, Swissmedic and SERI).