The World Trade Organization chief hailed Wednesday a breakthrough between the EU, the United States, India and South Africa on waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the compromise was a major step forward in a bid to end the logjam at the global trade body.
However, she cautioned that some of the details on waiving WTO rules on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) still needed to be fleshed out — and it would need the backing of all WTO members to come into force.
“This is a major step forward and this compromise is the result of many long and difficult hours of negotiations,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
“But we are not there yet. We have more work to do to ensure that we have the support of the entire WTO membership.”
Since October 2020, South Africa and India have called for IP rights to be temporarily lifted for coronavirus vaccines during the pandemic in order to boost production and address the gaping inequality in access between rich and poor nations.
However, the idea has met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and most of their host countries.
They have argued that patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warn the move could hamper innovation.
‘Wrong solution’: pharma lobby
Okonjo-Iweala stressed that internal domestic consultations were going on in the four parties to the compromise agreement, and some points still needed smoothing out.
But the former Nigerian finance minister said work would start immediately to widen the discussion to all 164 WTO members.
Switzerland, home to several major pharmaceutical companies, has notably repeatedly voiced its unwillingness to budge.
“In the WTO we decide by consensus, and this has not yet been achieved,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
“We are ready to roll up our sleeves again to… bring about a full agreement as quickly as possible.”
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations big pharma lobby group slammed the compromise, saying that weakening patents when supply constraints had eased was a mistake.
The IFPMA said 12 billion vaccine doses had been produced within a year of the first jab being authorized, and the industry was now pumping out more than a billion doses per month.
“The challenge now is how to get the vaccines into the arms of people who need them, rather than vaccine supply,” the group said.
“The TRIPS waiver is not only the wrong solution, it is also an outdated proposal, that has been overtaken by events.”
The IFPMA said the waiver was “unnecessary and irrelevant” and could undermine innovation in response to future pandemics.
Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance coalition campaigning for wider access to Covid vaccines, said the TRIPS waiver proposals did not go far enough.
“After almost 18 months of stalling and millions of deaths, the EU has climbed down and finally admitted that intellectual property rules and pharmaceutical monopolies are a barrier to vaccinating the world,” he said.
But Lawson said the proposal was a half-measure and did not address IP rights on Covid-19 treatments.
“Every barrier to accessing these crucial vaccines and treatments must be cleared away,” he said.
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