New DG Iweala Calls On WTO To ‘Walk & Chew’ Gum – Talk With Pharma About Expanding COVID Vaccine Supplies While Talks Continue On ‘IP ‘Waiver’
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala enters the WTO on 1 March 2021 to take over as WTO Director General.

Despite a groundswell of growing support, a South African and Indian proposal to the World Trade Organization to suspend patents and other intellectual property on vital COVID-19 vaccines and other health products was put on hold by WTO’s General Council in its session on Monday – with the next debate likely to occur in May. 

But there is growing pressure among supporters to move discussions to a draft text – to be hammered out in the interim by WTO members of the TRIPS Council, (which oversees the Trade Related Agreement on Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).   

The proposed TRIPS Waiver, first submitted by South Africa and India on 2 October, now has the support of Kenya, eSwatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and Egypt – as well as WTO’s least developed group of 35 mostly African and SouthEast Asian countries.   

“I think there is a general agreement among members to continue these discussions with the aim of trying to find some sort of compromise that would help and address this urgent matter regarding the global crisis,” said a Geneva WTO official, commenting on the TRIPS waiver deliberations, just after they concluded Monday evening.  

The official said that some 31 delegations had taken the floor to comment at today’s WTO General Council meeting, the first since the election of new WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. 

New WTO Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala presides over virtual meeting of WTO General Council, 1 March 2021

“The discussion was overall positive and constructive,” the official said. “Proponents underlined the urgency of addressing the matter.  Nearly all the delegations agreed on the need to ensure widespread and affordable access to vaccinations as soon as possible. 

“It was very constructive, with no animosity between the delegations, no name-calling, but a sense of urgency among many of the proponents, to ramp up manufacturing the vaccines – ensuring their widespread and affordable distribution.  And I think nearly all members agree to that goal. The difference is how that is to be achieved. Some pointed to initiatives outside of the WTO that are being undertaken on the matter.” 

According to other sources, while the majority of the 31 WTO  members who took the floor spoke on behalf of the waiver, about 10 countries remained in the middle while about six countries cautioned against relying on the waiver as the approach for this issue, [saying that] the argument is more complex and we have to look more at the exact role of IP as a problem in accessing vaccines.  

Among those more cautioning voices, Switzerland, Japan and New Zealand also stressed that pharma and industry representatives need to be drawn more deeply into the waiver discussions – in which they have so far not been involved.  

Significantly, neither the United States nor the European Union took the floor Monday on the waiver matter, sources said. 

Interventions by OECD members were “rather short” a Geneva trade official told Health Policy Watch.  Some focused on the existing TRIPS “flexibilities”, which allow countries to manufacture or export generics in health emergencies, but said they were keen to hear practical and effective ways to address bottlenecks. Others stressed existing international cooperation around the WHO co-sponsored COVAX vaccine facility as the preferred way forward to expand vaccine access.

But overall, obsevers say, countries that are supporting the waiver still haven’t yet managed to make a convincing case to high-income countries that IP is the major roadblock to expanded COVID vaccine manufacturing.

Significantly, South Africa’s  Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, currently chairs the TRIPS Council where waiver discussions are currently being held. But that roll will soon rotate to another country – there has been some speculation that the next candidate could be Norway, which could potentially play a bridging role between countries pro and con on the issue. 

Ngozi Says: WTO Delegates Need to ‘Walk & Chew Gum’ SImultaneously
Virtual meeting of WTO General Council, which began Monday, is likely to continue until Wednesday, 3 March.

Incoming WTO DG Iweala, meanwhile, said that WTO delegates and countries should “walk and chew gum” simultaneously – stepping up informal contacts with industry voices over the vaccines manufacturing bottleneck – while debates over the formal WTO waiver proposal continue at the WTO TRIPS Council. 

“We have a demand for a TRIPS waiver by a growing number of developing countries and the dialogue is intensifying,” declared Iweala. 

“Whilst this is happening, I propose that we “walk and chew gum” by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. 

“People are dying in poor countries. We just had our first COVAX shipment to Ghana last week and others will follow but it will not be enough. There is serious supply scarcity and some countries are out bidding COVAX and diverting supplies. 

‘Third Way’ Now Framed As ‘Interim’ Approach  

At the same time, Iweala’s comments represented a slight shift from remarks that she had made only two weeks ago, when she was elected to head the WTO. At the time, she said she would advocate for a “third way” approach based on voluntary licensing of patented vaccines to generic manufacturers in the global south.  

However, in her remarks to the WTO General Council this Monday, shared after the closed meeting, Iweala said that would only serve as an “interim solution” – until a more formal agreement were reached. 

“The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses. 

“This is just very difficult, so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries. We must get them to work with us on know-how and technology transfer now. 

“There will soon be a world manufacturing convention where we can seek to build this partnership. I also hope we can initiate a dialogue and information exchange between us and representatives of manufacturers associations from developing and developed countries. Excellencies, this should happen soon so we can save lives. 

“As I said at the beginning, this will be an interim solution whilst we continue the dialogue on the TRIPS waiver,” said Iweala. 

In her remarks, Iweala also called on members to “do things differently” to achieve reforms necessary to keep the WTO relevant, starting with swift action to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, as well as scaling COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. The new head of the WTO noted that high expectations for her tenure can only be met if members are willing to compromise and reach agreements – instead of “talking past each other” as has become the norm.

Without such compromises, she warned that the WTO risks becoming irrelevant and bypassed increasingly in global trade discussions and debates. 


Image Credits: ©WTO/Bryan Lehmann, ©WTO/Bryan Lehmann.

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