Door opens for TRIPS waiver textual negotiations

Washington DC, 11 May (D. Ravi Kanth) – With the Biden-Harris Administration having taken the United States out of the “blocking” countries, all eyes are now on Europe and Japan among others as momentum grows for text-based negotiations on the temporary TRIPS waiver for combating the Covid-19 pandemic. On 10 May, Indonesia and Vanuatu formally joined as co-sponsors of the waiver, bringing the number to 62 WTO members, supported by at least another 40.
In her introductory statement at the formal Doha Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) meeting on 3 May (Job/TNC/91), WTO director-general Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said “over the past few days and weeks, I have had very encouraging conversations with Ministers and Leaders who have reached out to talk about how they have heard of the WTO trying to solve the health problem and make the link between health and trade and help to deliver solutions to the pandemic.”
“Last week (26-30 April),” said Ms Okonjo-Iweala, “I had an excellent meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reached out and I am very grateful for the support she and the German government have shown and indicated, again anchored around this issue that the WTO can be part of the solution on health, and it is visibly seen as being just that.”
Although Ms Okonjo-Iweala did not reveal the details of her conversation with Ms Merkel, the possibility of the TRIPS waiver figuring in the talks cannot be ruled out in the wake of a global call from 100 former leaders, including half of the US Democratic Congressmen and women, Nobel Laureates, and around 400 international civil society organizations, to agree to the TRIPS waiver.
The DG and the German chancellor may have discussed the proposed “trade and health” initiative, which is also referred to as “trade and health”.
This initiative, which is being promoted by the European Union and several members of the Ottawa Group, seeks to address issues such as export restrictions, more bilateral and other licensing agreements, ensuring the supply of vaccines by countries that have huge stocks of unused vaccines, and so on.
It is at the heart of the DG’s so-called “third way” approach, said a person, who asked not to be quoted.
At the TNC meeting, some Ottawa Group members urged her to continue the discussions with pharmaceutical companies to ensure vaccine equity.
The DG has all along been saying that the discussions on the waiver must continue on a parallel track while pursuing the immediate issues of removing export restrictions and restoring trade liberalization measures.
In contrast, the waiver has called for suspending certain provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to copyrights, industrial designs (transfer of technology and knowledge-transfer), patents, and protection of undisclosed information (trade secrets) for ramping up global production of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines across countries so as to address issues of treatment and containment of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus that is rapidly mutating in various countries, said people familiar with the development.
So far, the worst pandemic in the past 100 years has claimed more than 3.283 million lives globally, with over 157 million registered cases of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
For the past seven months, the co-sponsors of the waiver made every attempt to address the issue from all aspects and provided substantial evidence to buttress their case.
However, a handful of countries led by the EU, Switzerland, and Japan among others have blocked demands for text-based negotiations on the waiver.
The United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Katherine Tai’s announcement on 5 May of the Biden-Harris Administration’s decision to support waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, and to participate in the text-based negotiations as demanded by India and South Africa along with more than 100 countries, brought about a paradigmatic shift, particularly for engaging in text-based negotiations by the end of this month.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Ambassador Tai said, arguing that “the Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
The USTR said “we will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
However, the USTR’s announcement received mixed responses from Europe with the German chancellor reportedly saying that “I do not think that a patent waiver is the solution to make more vaccines available to more people,” and “rather, I think that we need the creativity and the power of the innovation of companies, and to me, that includes patent protection.”
She went on to say that innovation “should not be weakened such that no rapid adaptations for variants can be found,” and “the problem is not that people are sitting on their patents and not taking actions.”
On the Biden Administration, Ms Merkel said that “now that a further part of the American population has been vaccinated, I hope that we can come to a free exchange of components and an opening of the market for vaccines,” according to media reports on 8 May.
The French President Emmanuel Macron said at the EU leaders’ meeting on 7 May that “patents are not the priority.”
“I call very clearly on the United States to put an end to export bans not only on vaccines but on vaccine ingredients, which prevent production,” he said on the margins of the meeting.
According to a Reuters report on 8 May, the European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said “we should be open to lead this discussion” with a caveat that “when the EU would lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world.”
The EU’s evolving positions seem to be centring around the “third way” approach, and its insistence on a “360 degree view” on the waiver could involve a payment from the waiver co-sponsors, said a person, who asked not to be quoted.
If the US wholeheartedly makes a strong pitch for an early solution based on the text-based negotiations, and public pressure on the EU and others continue, there are chances of wrapping up a deal in the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, the powerful pharmaceutical companies have stepped up their campaign against the waiver, so the developing countries could face a rough period in the coming days and months.
In addition, a senior Biden administration official reportedly said that while the priority is saving lives, the United States “would want to examine the effect of a waiver on China and Russia before it went into effect to ensure that it’s fit for the purpose” (see SUNS #9334 dated 27 April 2021). – Third World Network
Published in SUNS #9345 dated 12 May 2021