‘High Hopes’ of WTO Action to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies & Stimulate Pandemic Response – But Decisions Punted to Autumn
World Trade Organization’s General Council meets in Geneva for first in-person session since COVID pandemic began – but fails to reach agreement on proposed IP waiver for COVID health products

World Trade Organization Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has ” high hopes” that the WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) that convenes at the end of November can deliver decisions that curb harmful fisheries subsidies as well as improving access of low- and middle-income countries to COVID medicines and vaccines.  But WTO members must overcome a series of hurdles to show results by the end of a year – and demonstrate the continued relevancy of the global trade organization, officials warned Tuesday, following the opening of a two-day General Council meeting.

Two weeks ago, Iweala declared that members were “on the cusp of forging a WTO agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies”  – which undermine the environmental sustainability of ocean ecosystems, upon which billions of people worldwide depend for nutrition and food security.

However, as WTO General Council members huddled face-to-face for the first time in months, big decisions on both the fisheries issue as well as the thorny question of a proposed waiver on intellectual property rules for COVID-19 medicines and vaccines, were being still punted down the field to the autumn.

WTO TRIPS Council members will resume informal talks in early September in an effort to break the deadlock over the controversial proposal by India and South Africa to waive all forms of IP on COVID related health products for at least three years, said WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell, at a press briefing. 

WTO members will also be going “line by line” over a draft text on fisheries subsidies, beginning in early September, in an effort to reach final agreement over another politically charged issue, he said.

WTO talks on the subsidies have dragged on for two decades – while unsustainable, industrial fishing operations continued apace to drain ocean fish stocks, fueled by lucrative government subsidies to powerful industrial fishing fleets and interests.

To add insult to injury, deep water industrial fishing boats often operate thousands of miles away from their own home countries – and offshore of the coasts of poor nations, depriving subsistance fishermen working shallower coastal waters of catches critical to their food security. Some three billion people worldwide depend on fish stocks as their primary source of protein, according to the WWF.

The emerging WTO agreement would ban subsidies that “contribute to unreported and unregulated fishing”. It would also prohibit subsidies for fishing overfished stocks, unless those subsidies help restore such stocks.  And thirdly, the draft text would prohibit subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing – with a detailed reference of those subsidies.

The net result  is that “non-harmful subsidies would not be prohibited – but subsidiers would have to prove that they have robust measures in place to avoid causing harm,” said Colombia’s Trade Ambassador Santiago Wills, who has been leading the negotiations. “In addition, this prohibition is complemented by other rules, limiting subsidies to distant water fishing.”

For TRIPS waiver agreement – all eyes now set to November’s Ministerial Council meeting

Reaching an agreement on fisheries as well as pandemic response is seen by Iweala as critical steps that also would demonstrate WTO’s relevance to the most pressing issues the world faces.

“A credible outcome here is critically important for the credibility of the organization,” declared Rockwell, of the various COVID initiatives now being debated at WTO.

Talks between rich and poor countries over the waiver initiative stalemated, however, in July’s round of meetings in the WTO TRIPS Council, leading only to an interim report detailing the issues over the deadlock at the two-day WTO General Council session. 

With an eye to producing results for the big November, Norwegian Trade Ambassador and TRIPS Council Chair, Dagfinn Sørli, said that he will reconvene WTO member delegations for an open-ended, informal session in early September – ahead of the next formal TRIPS Council meeting, set for October 13-14. 

Despite the current impasse between rich and poor countries over the proposal for a blanket waiver under WTO’s agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), everyone agrees on the ultimate objectives, Rockwell stressed.

That objective is to expand the supply of medicines and vaccines as fast as possible.  

‘No way they’re going to stop discussing this’

(Left-right) WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Chairperson Ambassador Davio Castillo, presiding over the General Council meeting 27-28 July.

“There’s no way they’re going to stop discussing this. It’s too important. It’s a very emotional issue, and it’s not going to stop,” Rockwell affirmed. 

“Let me  make it clear that on the broadest objective,  ramping up production, having trade in these essential products flowing smoothly.  … everyone agrees on this.” 

Key sticking points on the waiver initiative include the proposed duration of a waiver, it’s scope in terms of products that would be covered, as well as the technical TRIPS provisions that would be overridden by any waiver agreement, Rockwell said.

Under the latest formula put forward by South Africa, India and 13 other countries as well as the African Group and the Least Developed Countries group,  the waiver would cover all COVID health products and override all existing  TRIPS restrictions on the use and sharing of IP. It would remain in force for “at least 3 years from the date of decision,” subject to reassessment after that time.   

European delegations and their allies, however, continue to maintain that their proposal to streamline current TRIPS rules would achieve the same overall goal.  That proposal would ease the existing WTO IP rules, making it easier for countries to override commercial patents for urgently needed health products, by issuing their own “compulsory” licenses, including products for export. 

In mid-July, Australia, Brazil and China, as well as Canada, the European Union, and nearly two dozen other high-income and upper middle-income countries also tabled a WTO  “COVID-19 and Beyond: Trade and Health” proposal before the General Council to address critical supply chain bottlenecks related to national export restrictions, customs rules, tariffs and other technical issues – which in turn combine to limit the international movement of hundreds of inputs needed for vaccine and medicines production. 

And at Tuesday’s meeting, EU member states also pointed to their new initiative to set up biomedical innovation hubs in Senegal, South Africa and Rwanda as an example of the kinds of practical steps that need to be taken to actually implement technology transfer – so that available manufacturing capacity could be better harnessed in low- and middle-income countries – and more capacity built.  

Iweala so far sidestepped a position on the TRIPS waiver    


WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at the body’s General Council session, 27-28 July.

WTO Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala continues to seek some third way between the IP waiver initiative – backed by some 100 low- and middle-income countries – and the alternative proposal by the European Union and its allies.  

“It don’t have to be binary option” Rockwell, quoting the WTO DG.

He added that Iweala, as WTO DG, has so far “deliberately”  avoided taking a position on the TRIPS waiver issue – in light of the deep divisions between WTO members themselves. 

“But what she has said is that TRIPS alone is not enough…. We need to find a pragmatic and practical approach.

“And if you listen to the manufacturers, what they say is most important is the transfer of technology and know-how.  You need to have the equipment, the proper regulatory environment and so you need to have some technical assistance to ramp that up.”

“She has also been quite clear to [trade] ministers, that finance ministers, health ministers and development ministers will all be producing outcomes between now and the end of the year, and it would really not be a good look, i the trade ministers didn’t do the same.”

However, he suggested that despite the current impasse, sparks of progress are now apparent – and that is encouraging. 

“”She is very pleased that negotiations are underway.  I think she gets frustrated when you have a situation where people just read papers and talk past each other, and we’re beyond that now.”

Image Credits: WTO .

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.