WTO Ministerial Conference Extended for Another Day as Pressure Builds for Results

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is extending its 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) for a fifth day, buying time for delegates to negotiate some tough deals in five main areas: the pandemic response, COVID-19 vaccines, fishing subsidies, food shortages and agriculture.

The long-delayed ministerial conference, which opened on Sunday and was originally planned to close on Wednesday evening, is now scheduled to last until Thursday afternoon as pressure has built for the WTO to show real results from the meeting, the first in five years. 

“It requires that we work harder and work nights, whatever it takes to be able to do it,” said the WTO’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Progress is being made but it needs a little more work and more time. The not-so-good news is that we are running out of time, so I think it is really time for ministers to make the requisite decisions that need to be made.”

Civil society calls on WTO ministers to reject current IP waiver text

Press briefing Wednesday in Geneva by civil society groups opposed to the WTO’s draft text on an IP waiver for COVID vaccines with UN AIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima (second from right).

Meanwhile, a wave of opposition was building to the terms of a proposed waiver of parts of the 1995 TRIPS Agreement, a major intellectual property agreement. The proposed waiver has been one of the draft WTO decisions deemed to have the best chances of gaining consensus approval this week. Its aim is to make it easier for developing countries to produce and export generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.

Some 150 civil society groups delivered a letter to WTO trade ministers calling on them to include tests and treatments in the waiver terms, along with vaccines, and to remove a complex series of limitations on the export, import and potential re-exportation by third-party countries of any generic products manufactured under the waiver.

“I call on all countries to step up and think about what this waiver is meant to do,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, at a press conference convened by civil society groups Wednesday. She called on WTO members to ensure the waiver would “cover all forms of intellectual property rules, not just narrow patent-related restrictions on exports; [and] address tests and life-saving treatments today.  Don’t kick the can down the road.” The virtual broadcast of the press conference was cut short abruptly by a hack of the WTO’s zoom line.

WTO spokesperson Daniel Pruzin indicated the deals closest to being completed were the “WTO response of the pandemic” – a so-called ‘trade and health declaration’’ to reduce trade barriers for essential medicines and the active pharmaceutical ingredients they contain – and the limited waiver of patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines to boost their availability among developing countries.

“We’re still optimistic of getting some outcomes from this conference,” Pruzin told reporters on Tuesday night. “Everything’s extremely fluid at the moment.”

He said Okonjo-Iweala believes some of the negotiations are “really close” to coming to fruition, and delegates “just need more decision-making that will allow us to go over the line.”

Convergence on exemption of World Food Programme purchases 

A family feed their cows straw from the roof of their home in Adadle in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

There also seemed to be momentum behind efforts to lift or ease export restrictions on food and to exempt World Food Program (WFP) humanitarian purchases from export restrictions.

The potential deals with the biggest remaining sticking points appeared to be over a ministerial declaration on other aspects of trade and security – as well as a draft decision to eliminate environmentally harmful fisheries subsidies, including subsidies for long-distance fishing that critics say contributes to a dangerous depletion of fish stocks and other ocean resources. 

WTO operates by consensus decision-making, so a single member’s veto can doom an agreement. India, in particular, has opposed aspects of the draft agreement on harmful fisheries subsidies, claiming they could affect artisanal fishermen. While there is some merit to those concerns, Indian environmental advocates point out that most of India’s fuel and other fisheries subsidies already go to large fleets working farther offshore.

[See related story: https://healthpolicy-watch.news/wto-opens-with-cautious-optimism-but-civil-society-protests-lockout/]

India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal told delegates that “the exemption from [WTO] disciplines for the low income, or resource-poor or livelihood fishing, particularly again for those nations not involved in long-distance fishing up to our EEZ, i.e. 200 nautical miles, is highly essential to provide socio-economic security to these vulnerable communities,” according to a statement posted online by India’s Ministry of Commerce & Industry.

On the brighter side, a draft declaration on intensified action on food safety measures to enhance food security and limit pathogen spread in the international trade context seemed to be set for member approval.

Image Credits: MSF Access , Michael Tewelde / World food Programme.

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