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EXCLUSIVE | India confident of securing US support for key global proposal at WTO soon, officials say

India and South Africa had requested members of the World Trade Organization back in October, 2020 to suspend certain parts of a global pact on IPR, so that vaccine and testing technology for Covid-19 can be easily shared. Developed nations led by the United States had consistently blocked the proposal. But changing public opinion, global pressure and a key ally may now help India in securing US support.

April 14, 2021 / 08:33 PM IST
Representative image. WTO logo

Representative image. WTO logo

More than six months after India and South Africa had requested member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive a global intellectual property pact that stops unfettered global flow of Covid-19 vaccines and related technology, officials say they expect the plan's biggest opponent - the United States - to soon support its position.

The temporary waiver of the trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules would allow countries and manufacturers to directly access and share technologies to produce vaccines and tests worldwide without falling foul of existing rules that threaten trade sanctions or raise the risk of international disputes. But proposals at the WTO need unanimous support to pass and lack of a nod from the world's biggest economy has stymied efforts.

The administration under US President Joe Biden has till now followed preceding Trump team's staunch refusal to waive the TRPS rules arguing it will lead to major economic loss for US corporations. Washington DC has been heavily lobbied by major US drug manufacturers for months now to block the proposal. They see the waiver as the first step in companies losing the rights to technologies into which billions of dollars have been invested in.

But now, the government is expecting the US to soon support the pact after a large number of US parliamentarians wrote to the White House while the public mood has also swung in favor of the proposal. "Our team at Geneva ( headquarters of WTO) has informed us that the proposal will soon be supported by Washington DC. We have also had discussions with the US on the sue," a senior trade department official said.

Sources also point out that on the issue, New Delhi has a powerful ally in the World Trade Organization Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala herself. Last week, she publicly made the case that equitable worldwide access to COVID-19 vaccines is necessary for economic growth and trade to bounce back from the pandemic. Continued vaccine scarcity and the related threat of dangerous new viral variants, are the top risks to the rebound in global economic activity and trade, the WTO has said.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Currently on a visit to Washington DC, the Director General is believed to have pushed hard for rapid, equitable access to vaccines, especially in developing and least developed countries at a meeting with United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai, an official said.

Back and forth

On 2 October, 2020 India and South Africa had submitted the proposal at the global trade body seeking a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of certain sections of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19 globally. Since then, the duo have been joined by a large number of mostly developing and underdeveloped nations including Pakistan, Venezuela, Mongolia, and the African Group and the Least Developed Countries Group at WTO.

Extensive research by the New York Times shows that while 825 million vaccine doses have been administered till now, 83 percent of it has been in high and middle income countries. Only 8 percent of Asian and just 1 percent of African populations have been vaccinated, it showed.

"We have said this is not a permanent waiver and that it will be categorically revisited on an annual basis. At informal meetings, India had also assured the EU and the US that we would not seek to extend it once the health implications of the pandemic are reasonably brought under control globally. If it had been enforced back then, we would have seen the annual review come up just 6-months from now," a senior Commerce Department official said.

India has continued to bat for the WTO proposal directly and indirectly across multiple international fora. Earlier this month, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal requested the European Union (EU) for its  support. after more than 250 members of European Parliament (MEPs) and national parliamentarians urged the EYU to accept the waiver.

On 13 April at the annual Raisina dialogue event, External Affairs Minister S  Jaishankar said in diplomacy today, doing good is being smart. "Health security is now integral to national security. No one is safe till everyone is safe," he said.
Subhayan Chakraborty
first published: Apr 14, 2021 08:33 pm

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