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Global IPR waiver for vaccines: India now expects US to do diplomatic heavy lifting at WTO

The US has backed India's proposal to temporarily suspend key clauses of a global intellectual property rights rule to boost vaccine availability. But having introduced it seven months ago, and systematically securing the support from 120 middle- and lower-income nations, New Delhi is now content to let Washington convince the European Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and China.

May 07, 2021 / 03:01 PM IST
World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva (Photo : Reuters)

World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva (Photo : Reuters)

Jubilant at getting the United States to back its proposal on waiving off certain Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of vaccine manufacturers at the World Trade Organization (WTO), India now expects the Biden administration to do the diplomatic heavy lifting of convincing other rich allies such as the European Union (EU), United Kingdom and Japan to back it.

However, it will be working with partner South Africa to present an updated proposal on the subject at the earliest that ``seeks to take into account many, if not all, of the sensitivities of richer nations regarding the issue’’, senior Commerce Ministry officials say.

In the early hour of May 6, United States Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, released a statement announcing the support of the Joe Biden administration for the proposal aimed at boosting global vaccine availability and widening access for middle- and lower-income countries.

It aims to do that by temporarily waiving off the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules, which 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.

The US support came as a major step towards creating a global consensus on the hard-fought issue. But now, the same arguments from the private sector that had hindered its support for the proposal, are emerging from the European bloc.

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The issue of corporations giving up their intellectual property rights remains a contentious issue in richer nations, especially when it comes at the behest of government regulations.

While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says that the EU is ‘ready to discuss’ the proposal, the continent’s vaccine makers, including France's Sanofi, Germany's BioNTech and Curevac in Netherland, have already begun to lobby their respective governments to fight the proposal.

With WTO decisions only passed after securing the unanimous consensus of every member nation in the body's General Assembly, the task ahead is cut out. New Delhi will also let Washington DC get the backing of inscrutable China and Russia, both of whom have remained tight lipped on the issue.

Updated proposal

The US announcement of support has come more than seven months after India and South Africa had introduced the proposal to the WTO's TRIPS council.

"To expedite the process of discussions in the infamously slow and cautious world of trade diplomacy, we would need to update the text and submit the new proposal soon," a senior official said.

As it is, it will take months to settle legal issues and sort through details of financing, manufacturing, distribution and administering vaccines, even after the proposal finally passes, he added.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a proponent of the proposal from the beginning, who was instrumental in getting US President Biden's support, has also nudged India to quickly present an updated text.

After her visit to Washington DC last month, Moneycontrol had been the first to report that India is inching closer to securing crucial US support for the proposal.

"I am pleased that the proponents are preparing a revision of their proposal and I urge them to put this on the table as soon as possible so that text-based negotiations can commence. 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,” she said on May 6.

"While India will continue to bring up the issue at the bilateral fora, New Delhi has already done its part by rallying the support of as many as 120 middle- and lower-income countries to back the proposal," another official said.

However, that might be easier said than done. Officials admit that there is no clarity on when India will submit its revised proposal. Part of the dilemma stems from the working of this global intergovernmental organization. For example, there are multiple WTO provisions, which can be used to either fast track or delay the outcome. Much will also depend on the US, which will be convincing the EU and Japan to adopt the same course, making the diplomatic situation somewhat fluid.

However, the latest move by Washington DC is expected to bring both nations closer together on the trade diplomacy front in various issues, sources say.

The US has been one of India's most difficult rivals at the WTO, fighting a series of battles against India over the past few years irrespective of the Presidential administrations.
Subhayan Chakraborty

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