WTO’s DG Okonjo-Iweala Welcomes New US Support For Waiver On COVID Vaccine IP: ‘We Need To Respond Urgently’
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

World Trade Organization’s (WTO) director general Ngozi Onkonjo-Iweala on Thursday hailed the United States government’s decision to support the suspension of intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines – while also emphasising the urgency of even more immediate actions to increase vaccine supplies to lower-income countries.  

In a statement after a two-day closed-door WTO General Council meeting, Onkonjo-Iweala said she “warmly welcomed” the US’s willingness to “engage with proponents of a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement to help in combating the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“We need to respond urgently to COVID-19 because the world is watching and people are dying,” Onkonjo-Iwela said, in a carefully measured statement. That statement also underlined the fact the lead sponsors of the blanket waiver, South Africa and India, were revising their proposal to reconcile the deep differences among high- and low-income WTO member states. 

“I am pleased that the proponents are preparing a revision to their proposal and I urge them to put this on the table as soon as possible so that text-based negotiations can commence,” Onkonjo-Iweala said. 

“It is only by sitting down together, that we will find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all members, which enhances developing countries, access to vaccines, while protecting and sustaining the research and innovation, so vital to the production of these life saving vaccines.”

The global trade body has for months been facing calls by a group of 60 low-income countries, led by India and South Africa to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and tests, which are governed by the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).

Proponents say this would help boost medicines and vaccine production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs – as well as oiling the wheels of international trade – in which developing countries that produce generic or biosimilar versions of drugs and vaccines, can face IP barriers in producing and exporting those products to other countries in need. 

Until now, however, most leading developed countries, as well as the pharma industry, have opposed the blanket waiver, saying that it would not really serve to ramp up technologically complex medicines or vaccine production. The US change in position vis a vis vaccines, at least, under the new administration of President Joe Biden, is a significant shift that could pull other countries along too – particularly the European Union.

Already on Thursday, New Zealand’s trade minister, Damien O’Connor, said that the country would align with the initiative for an  IP waiver on vaccines. “We welcome the US announcement and look forward to taking this forward with urgency.”  

And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signalled that the EU might also reconsider its previously staunch opposition to the TRIPS waiver, saying “we are open to discuss any other effective and pragmatic solution.

Speaking at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, Von der Leyen said that the EU was ready to discuss the US-backed proposal.

But she also called upon all vaccine-producing countries to immediately remove export limits on their products and avoid other measures that disrupt supply chains – a thinly-veiled criticism of the United States and the United Kingdom’s moves that have, at times, limited exports of vaccines or their inputs. 

Mood At WTO General Council More Constructive

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell

At a press briefing on Thursday, WTO Spokesperson Keith Rockwell noted that the “‘mood was very different” and “discussions were constructive” at the General Council meeting following the announcement by US Trade Representative, Ambassador Katherine Tai, Wednesday evening, in a statement that declared:

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”.

Said Rockwell: “Clearly, there is a change in the atmosphere,” adding that while the US support does not guarantee an agreement, it signals a ‘very different dynamic’ from the United States, which is a key WTO player – that will move the negotiations to a concrete text formulation.

“Without this kind of change, an agreement could not be possible. And we don’t tend to come up with agreements by magic. These agreements tend to arise when we have when we have a text from which to negotiate,” Rockwell said.

Global Health Experts Applaud the United States’ Leadership 

The US move has been widely applauded by many leading global health experts – although opposed by industry voices as something that won’t really achieve the aim of ramping up needed.

“This is a game changer. US is stepping up. Doing the right thing. Doing the smart thing,” said Lawrence Gostin, Director of a WHO Collaborating Center on Global Health Law, on Twitter.

“I never thought I would live to see the day the US used its political muscle to waive IP rights against the implacable opposition of the pharma industry,” added Gostin. He described the pandemic as a ‘long game’ that could rage globally for many years until everyone is vaccinated. 

“The answer isn’t only sharing a scarce supply of vaccine doses, even if that is still important. It’s also vital to build capacity globally so that there’s enough doses for everyone. A win-win.” 

Conversely, a statement by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) warned that: “Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis.

“On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption, while distracting from addressing the real challenges in scaling up production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally.”

In a BBC interview, IFPMA Director-General Thomas Cueni said he was “even more concerned” about bolstering pandemic preparedness in the wake of the US change in position.

“Here you had 300 plus vaccine developers engaged in trying to be the first to the finishing line on COVID-19, trusting that the legal framework would be honoured. Now, with this precedent, if it is carried through, the message for future pandemic preparedness to investors, to companies is ‘don’t count that this legal framework will be honoured” – if there is a crisis, the patent will be ignored, which is not really the incentive you need.”

The so-called “Ottawa Group-plus”, led by Canada and including a mix of high- and lower-income WTO countries, have meanwhile tried to advance a more general declaration on Trade and Health, which would aspire to eliminate export restrictions on vital COVID-19 health products and curb vaccine nationalism.  But many other WTO members, including not only the sponsors but other Latin America countries, have said that the initiative falls short of achieving real impacts.

“What they said was that these things do not go far enough,” said Rockwell, reporting on the results of Thursday’s WTO General Council session. “And reference was made on a number of occasions to the need to have a waiver of TRIPS that this is really a critical tool for combating this. Many countries have spoken up in favour of the statement made by Katherine Tai yesterday.”

Image Credits: Africa Centre for International Trade&Development, 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.