India’s Call for WTO Meeting on COVID-19 Response is ‘Premature’, Says EU
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addresses the meeting alongside General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo

The European Union (EU) has described India’s call for an urgent meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference to discuss the body’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a proposed waiver of relevant intellectual property protections, as “premature”.

Addressing the WTO General Council informal meeting on Monday, EU Ambassador João Aguiar Machado said that while the pandemic response was important, it “must not lead to a loss of momentum on the other key components” – including “the fisheries subsidies negotiations, agreeing on a way forward on agriculture, and finalising the Ministerial Declaration with a strong commitment on WTO reform”.

General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) had convened the 10 January virtual meeting in response to India’s recent proposal – sent in a letter to the WTO last month. 

India and South Africa tabled a proposal well over a year ago to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for COVID-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

At Monday’s meeting, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged member states to urgently step up their efforts, suggesting that “with the requisite political will, members can in the space of the coming weeks reach multilateral compromises on intellectual property and other issues so that the WTO fully contributes to the global response to COVID-19 and future pandemics”, according to a WTO statement.

“More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our Twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated,” said Okonjo-Iweala.

“We at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against COVID-19,” she added.

‘No better time than now’

The Director-General also updated members on her efforts, together with Deputy Director-General Anabel González, “to support an informal group of members to converge around a meaningful acceptable outcome that can be built upon by the wider membership to bring a successful conclusion to the intellectual property issue.” 

“It is slow but steady progress, and we are hopeful that this approach can help us together find the direction we need,” she said. “There is no better time to build convergence than now.” 

She noted that while pandemic response remained the most urgent endeavour facing WTO members, many members had reached out to her to emphasise the importance of other items on the WTO agenda, including fisheries subsidies, agriculture and WTO reform. She stressed that these areas remained priorities for outcomes, and expressed hope “that we can all agree on getting results as soon as possible.”

Describing the meeting as “useful,” General Council Chair Ambassador Castillo said he would continue to hold consultations with members on the Indian proposal, underlining “the urgency and importance of reaching a meaningful outcome.” A common WTO response to COVID-19 “remains an urgent priority for the membership,” he said.

However, the EU Ambassador Machado said that “before any decision to call a virtual Ministerial meeting and topics to be decided, we believe the WTO Director-General and the Chair of the General Council should hold consultations with Members, to assess the way forward on all four issues that I referred to”.

“Any virtual Ministerial should take place only once there is a consensus both on intellectual property rights and on the Declaration and Action Plan on the wider pandemic response,” he added.

“Only a comprehensive trade response to the pandemic can make a difference and address the identified bottlenecks as regards the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines such as restricted access to raw materials and other inputs as well as complex supply chains.”


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