Divided World Trade Organization Presses to Delay Decision on IP Waiver for COVID Treatments
World Trade Organization members stretch TRIPS waiver decision.
WTO members agreed to recommend stretching the deadline on extending the TRIPS Decision to COVID diagnostics and therapeutics.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS Council agreed to recommend to the General Council, WTO’s highest-level decision-making body, that it extend Saturday’s deadline for deciding on whether to extend an intellectual property rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines to diagnostics and therapeutics.

The panel’s recommendation on Friday at a formal meeting chaired by Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone effectively put off the decision on whether the June 17 decision by the WTO Ministerial Council to approve a limited waiver on COVID-19 vaccines, should be extended to COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

After over a year of polarizing debate, WTO ministers had agreed to an IP waiver for COVID vaccines produced in developing countries under the terms of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS) during the MC12 ministerial meeting, attended by some 164 members.

The decision confirmed the right of WTO’s developing nation members to override exclusive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, for a period of five years, due to the public health emergency, including greater flexibility in manufacuring vaccines for export to other developing nations – something that is bureaucratically complex and difficult under the normative TRIPS rules.

However the MC12 postponed a decision on a similar waiver for COVID medicines and diagnostics – saying only that the matter should be decided within six months time.

The TRIPS Council’s agreement to recommend yet another delay in the decision on treatments came after considerable debate and division among trade diplomats, according to a Geneva-based trade official.

Access advocates, in arguing for the expansion of the waiver provisions, have said that COVID treatments are even harder for developing nations to obtain than vaccines. Pharma advocates have argued that numerous generic licenses have already been issued voluntarily. They argue that the real access barriers include the lack of priority accorded to COVID in the health systems of low- and middle-income countries, due to the diminishing impacts of the virus, threats from more deadly diseases, and limited health systems capacity.

No clarity about time frame

Gberie will submit a report saying “the TRIPS Council recommends that the General Council extend the deadline,” but the report apparently does not specify for how long. Gberie credited US Ambassador María Pagán for coming up with the final agreed upon wording for the recommendation to the General Council, which is scheduled to meet on Dec. 19-20 – after Saturday’s deadline has passed.


Outcome disappoints everyone  

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) expressed its disappointment that further time and energy will be devoted to a discussion that it said fails to address the real challenges to access.

“Evidence shows there is no reason to extend a waiver on COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics,” the global trade federation said. “Instead, if adopted, the proposal will have long-term adverse effects on the current pipeline for COVID-19 therapeutics and for future pandemics. While these discussions continue, the ongoing uncertainty is unwelcome.”

On the other side of the ideological divide, the People’s Vaccine Alliance described it as “shameful” that a decision was not already made to extend the IP waiver to cover the production and supply of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

“We are nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 17 million people are estimated to have died in the time that the WTO has bickered over intellectual property rules for tests and treatments. To say that more time is needed to consider the issue is utter nonsense,” said Max Lawson, co-chair of the alliance and head of inequality policy at Oxfam. “WTO members have decided to let another year pass without making any meaningful contribution to the fight against COVID-19.”

Last week the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) office announced its support for extending the deadline on whether the WTO Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement should be extended to COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

The USTR also asked the US International Trade Commission (USITC) to “launch an investigation into COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics and provide information on market dynamics to help inform the discussion around supply and demand, price points, the relationship between testing and treating, and production and access”, according to another USTR statement. That investigation could take as long as a year.

Dozens of other nations, including the European Union’s 27-nation bloc, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the U.K. also have sought more time for the potential waiver extension, saying more evidence is needed to show that intellectual property rules have slowed global access to COVID-19 treatments and tests.

However, developing nations such as India, Indonesia and South Africa have pushed to extend the waiver, arguing it is needed to cover the production and supply of Covid-19 diagnostics and therapeutics so as to broaden global access to drugs that can reduce cases of COVID hospitalization and long-COVID, precisely in those low-income countries where low vaccination rates make people more vulnerable to serious disease.

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