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Explained | How the US decision to back India's proposal at the WTO may end the global pandemic sooner than expected

While it has come more than seven months after India and other nations floated a proposal at the WTO wanting to ensure global vaccine availability, the US support is a major step towards arriving at a global consensus on the hard fought issue. Crucially, will vaccine majors relent and give up and their intellectual property rights to ensure everyone gets a jab sooner than later?

May 06, 2021 / 01:07 PM IST
COVID-19 Vaccine | Representative image

COVID-19 Vaccine | Representative image

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues its rampage, the United States has finally come out in support of a proposal by India currently at the World Trade Organization (WTO), that seeks to waive off certain Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to boost global vaccine availability.

Early on May 6 morning, United States Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, released a statement announcing the support of the President Joe Biden administration for the proposal. Moneycontrol had been the first to report last month that India is inching closer to securing crucial US support for the proposal.

When, and if, the proposal becomes global law, a massive ramp up in manufacturing of vaccines is expected on a global scale, especially in poorer nations who will now get access to the technology and resources to manufacture vaccines.

But what is the TRIPS agreement that is proposed to be waived off ?

The agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) , which came into effect on January 1, 1995, is to date the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property.

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The areas of intellectual property that it looks at, broadly cover copyright and related rights, trademarks including service marks, geographical indications, including appellations of origin, industrial designs and patents.

However, it has been hailed as a model law for protecting the commercial rights of countries and corporations, given that it extends to protection for new varieties of plants, the layout-designs of integrated circuits and undisclosed information, including trade secrets and test data.

A key feature of the agreement is that it ensures that disputes between this intergovernmental organization's member nations with respect to TRIPS obligations will have to be settled at the WTO's dispute settlement court, the highest global court for bilateral trade issues.

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 licenses.

How is India involved in this?

India and South Africa had requested members of the World Trade Organization back in early 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.

The proposal had till April garnered support from 57 countries. It had specifically suggested a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.

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

India's proposal suggests an indefinite waiver, which is reviewed annually until all nations feel that the pandemic is over and the global population has access to sufficient numbers of vaccines. The waiver proposal has been blocked at the TRIPS Council and the WTO ministerial Council, but the negotiations are still proceeding.

Why did it take the US so much time to make up its mind?

While WTO negotiations are infamous for their slow pace of progress, the proposal had difficulty in garnering US support. The issue of corporations giving up their intellectual property rights remains a contentious issue in the US.

American pharma majors had systematically lobbied at the US Capitol, stoking the fear of economically Right Wing conservative Republican members of the Congress that any government intervention in corporate matters should be opposed due to historical and moral reasons.

Considered the birthplace of capitalism, the US has a strong history of even public backlashes once the Federal government begins to regulate the private sector. They pointed to the proposal arguing that its acceptance would open the way for similar action being taken multiple times going forward and erode American values of free enterprise driven by a right to make profit.

What finally convinced Washington DC?

Last week, at least 108 members of the US Congress wrote to President Joe Biden urging him to support the proposal, a month after 10 Democratic senators had given their approval to the waiver. However, a batch of Republican lawmakers had also written to Biden. So the President's administration announced its position after being sure of support from its own party and only after it felt public mood would allow it to take on its opponents.

Sources say that New Delhi had presented its case to a powerful ally in the WTO, the Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, herself. The first woman from sub-Saharan Africa to occupy the post, she had repeatedly made the case in public 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. During a visit to Washington DC last month, the Director General had raised the issue with President Biden.

What about other countries?

While it was the largest obstacle to the TRIPS waiver, the US was not the only pocket of resistance. Developed countries are now expected to rally around the European Union, which also has a large number of vaccine manufacturers.

France's Sanofi, Germany's BioNTech and Curevac in Netherland, among others, are expected to petition their local jurisdiction nations or even the European Parliament.

Astrazeneca, which has provided the largest number of jabs in India, is an Anglo-Swedish company. In May 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) had proposed a COVID– Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) designed to share knowledge to rapidly scale up vaccine production, but all global vaccine companies refused to participate.

What will happen now?

The US has said it will actively participate in negotiations at the WTO to back their latest decision. Experts say this will mean redrafting the existing text-based waiver proposal after taking into consideration the reservations of any nation. Decisions at the WTO are passed unanimously - that is with the consent of each and every of the current 159 members.

The earlier proposal had been put forward to the General Council, the largest decision making body of the WTO which includes every member country.

Even if a fresh proposal is drawn up, it will be directed towards and passed by the General Council. This will ensure that while the maximum number of ‘sensitivities’ currently harboured by rich members is taken care of , the poorer nations have their say and the proposal passed quickly. But this is expected to take some time.

How will this affect India?

Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal had last month pointed out at a WTO event that India has shared 80 per cent of its total vaccine production at one point with other nations. If other vaccine producing countries undertake similar burden sharing, then much more can be done for equitable distribution.

As a result, India will not have to contribute by supplying much of the developing world and earmark a larger piece of the domestic production for itself.

Also, as many countries start producing vaccines, their costs will also come down, as will the logistical charges for shipping COVID-19 vaccine raw materials.

What will this mean for global vaccination?

If this waiver proposal passes the WTO, accessibility to vaccines will increase globally. As of May 5, according to the New York Times, more than 1.19 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide - equal to 16 doses for every 100 people.

But while 48 percent of the population in North America has received a dose, just 12 percent of Asia and a paltry 1.2 percent of Africans have received it.

A failure to pass this will continue an inequitable vaccination programme that could prolong the pandemic for many years through cycles of mutation and may cost the global economy trillions of dollars as lost output and fiscal and monetary stimulus, Commerce Minister Goyal had recently said.
Subhayan Chakraborty

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