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EXCLUSIVE | Global vaccine patent waiver not expected until WTO's ministerial in December: Sources

Multiple people in the know stress that talks have broken down due to opposition from wealthy nations like EU, Switzerland and UK, egged on by a non-committal US which has changed its position. The TRIPS vaccine waiver can now only happen in December when trade ministers of all WTO nations converge for the 12th ministerial conference.

October 04, 2021 / 02:31 PM IST
World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva (Photo : Reuters)

World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva (Photo : Reuters)

As negotiations stall at the World Trade Organization (WTO), multiple well-placed sources have confirmed that there remains almost no hope of the global vaccine waiver getting clearance till December, if at all.

The global body will be holding its once-in-two-years ministerial conference from November 30 to December 4 to be attended by trade ministers from all member nations, and countries will make the next play then, sources say.

One year ago, India and South Africa proposed (on October 2, 2020), talks on a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccine manufacturers. The proposal argued in favour of suspending certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) so that vaccines and testing technology for COVID-19 could be easily shared.

However, the proposal has not made progress due to staunch opposition from a handful of wealthy nations such as the European Union bloc, Switzerland, Norway and the United Kingdom. “They have been emboldened by a noncommittal United States, despite the support of almost all WTO member nations. Since all WTO decisions have to be unanimous, there is nothing that can be done even if a single nation is unwilling,” a senior trade negotiator said.

The cost of the delay has been huge. “In the one year that has passed since, tragically over 3.6 million people have died from COVID-19. A handful of governments has chosen to obstinately block the TRIPS waiver from the beginning, and these are the same governments that have stockpiled vaccines and therapeutics to protect their own populations instead of sharing,” said Sharmila Shetty, vaccines medical advisor at the Geneva-headquartered MSF Access Campaign. The campaign is being led by global humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières.


US bets on exports

Moneycontrol had been the first to report in April that India was inching closer to securing crucial US support for the proposal. While the official support had come in May, things have fast changed since then.

“The US position has also significantly shifted in the past few months in that they now favour directly providing poorer nations with vaccines rather than completely open access to vaccines for all nations,” the senior trade negotiator cited above said. Instead, the United States has bet on pushing low-cost vaccine exports and donations to less developed countries.

In total, it has pledged to donate a cumulative 1.1 billion shots across the world, of which 172 million have been sent out, according to the US State Department. In the Asia-Pacific, the Joe Biden administration has bet on the Quad, whereby wealthy Australia and Japan have followed suit in announcing grants for vaccine donations. For the shots themselves, the US has continued to push India, which has already committed to export 8 million doses by October-end.

The story so far

The proposal had, till April 2020, garnered support from 57 countries. It seeks to suspend certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement, which came into effect on January 1, 1995, and is to date the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property.

Suspending parts of this agreement will allow countries to overcome the legal challenges posed by patents to timely provisioning of affordable medical products. Some WTO nations have had to carry out urgent legal amendments to their national patent laws to expedite the process of issuing compulsory/government use licences.

India’s updated draft of its proposed IPR waiver, sponsored by 62 nations, was submitted to the WTO on May 21 and discussed by the TRIPS Council on May 30.

The powerful TRIPS Council had on June 9 cleared India's proposal for a further debate by all members. A series of special meetings throughout July aimed at helping bridge the gap failed. While India has the unofficial backing of more than 120 countries, major global powers have stalled talks, citing grave discomfort at a ‘potential blanket suspension of the terms of the TRIPS agreement’, a senior Commerce Department official said.

Having the second-largest population on earth and facing an acute shortage of vaccines at home till now, India has also persistently raised this issue at almost all bilateral and multilateral fora since then, senior officials say.

If the proposal becomes global law, a massive ramp-up in the manufacturing of vaccines is expected, especially in poorer nations, which will now get access to the technology and resources to manufacture vaccines.

Moneycontrol had earlier reported that India's updated proposal focused on at least a three-year-long waiver of IPRs globally for COVID-19 vaccines. However, the issue had come to a head over the proposal suggesting that the waiver also include requisite drugs, medical equipment and all health technologies necessary for the prevention of COVID-19.
Subhayan Chakraborty has been regularly reporting on international trade, diplomacy and foreign policy, for the past 6 years. He has also extensively covered evolving industry and government issues. He was earlier with Business Standard newspaper.
first published: Oct 4, 2021 02:31 pm

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