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Exclusive | Deadlock on vaccine waiver issue at WTO continues at latest meet

Rich nations oppose suspension of global intellectual property rights of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers. The latest development may derail the August deadline to conclude talks.

July 09, 2021 / 12:47 PM IST
File image: World Trade Organization (WTO) global headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

File image: World Trade Organization (WTO) global headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

India’s proposal to waive off certain Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to boost the availability of the vaccine is seeing slow progress at the World Trade Organization (WTO) as talks continue.

Sources say the two latest meetings of the WTO Council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has seen no progress as nations dig into their positions. Opposition from richer nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore, and the European Union continued at the latest TRIPS Council meeting on July 6.

As a result, maintaining the deadline for early August is becoming more untenable. A boost in vaccine availability as a result of the waiver has been included by the government in India’s long-term vaccination plans, sources said.

The powerful TRIPS Council had on June 9 cleared India's proposal for a further debate by all members. A series of meetings throughout July are slated, aimed at helping bridge the gap and reach a unanimous decision. All WTO actions are passed only by the full consensus of all member-nations.

While India has the unofficial backing of nearly 120 countries, major global powers had mentioned grave discomfort at a ‘potential blanket suspension of the terms of the TRIPS agreement’. The next meetings are on July 14 and 20.

“Coming up with an agreement acceptable to all within the next few days is becoming an increasingly tenuous proposition,” a person in the know said.

Some powerful multilateral organisations such as the World Bank has also come out against the proposal, arguing that it will stifle innovation in the pharmaceutical sector.

The story so far

India and South Africa had requested WTO members, back in early October 2020, to suspend certain parts of a global pact on IPR, so that vaccines 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 at home, India has also continuously raised this issue at almost all bilateral and multilateral fora since then, senior officials say.

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 proposal

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.

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.

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

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.

Moneycontrol had earlier reported that India's updated proposal focused on at least a three-year-long waiver of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) 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
first published: Jul 9, 2021 12:38 pm