In ‘monumental’ decision, US shows support for TRIPS waiver

Washington DC, 6 May (D. Ravi Kanth) – The Biden-Harris administration on 5 May brought about a seismic change in the ongoing discussions on a temporary waiver from certain provisions of the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement in combating the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed more than 3.2 million lives and over 154 million registered cases of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. After seven months of discussions, the Biden-Harris administration has announced its decision to support the temporary waiver and signalled its willingness to participate in text-based negotiations as demanded by South Africa, India, and more than 100 developing and least-developed countries.
The US Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Katherine Tai, who was expected to address the General Council meeting on 5 May, issued a brief statement on the same day “announcing the Biden-Harris Administration’s support for waiving intellectual property protections for the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” the USTR said in her statement.
Ambassador Tai, who has been holding round-the-clock meetings with various stakeholders for the past one month, said 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.”
She said that the US “will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen.”
“Those negotiations,” said Ambassador Tai, “will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” she said, adding that “as our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution.”
She assured manufacturers that the administration “will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”
Big Pharma opposed the US decision to support the temporary waiver proposal and join in text-based negotiations on grounds that “the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will.”
The Washington-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) said that “the Biden administration’s decision will weaken already-strained supply chains and spur counterfeit vaccines,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on 5 May.
“It is so wrong,” said Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla, arguing that “the limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines stems from how before the pandemic, there weren’t any approved products using the new gene-based mRNA technology in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine,” according to the report in the WSJ.
In one go, Ambassador Tai’s announcement has put paid to the repeated attempts by the opponents of the waiver, especially the European Union, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, and Brazil among others to stall the text-based negotiations.
Responding to the decision on the waiver by the Biden-Harris administration, World Health Organization director- general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”
In a brief statement issued on 5 May, Dr Tedros said “the commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges.”
The WHO DG has all along been supporting the waiver, as a credible and people-centred option for ramping up the production of urgently-need therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines.
Dr Tedros commended “the United States on its historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time.”
“Now let’s all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines,” he said.
Dr Tedros added: “The White House’s support for the temporary waiving of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines reflects the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States to work to end this pandemic. But I am not surprised by this announcement. This is what I expected from the Administration of President Biden.”
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on 5 May applauded the Biden-Harris Administration’s decision to support waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
It expressed hope that the decision will result in increasing “sufficient(ly) and timely access to these life-saving medical tools as COVID-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe.”
The Biden-Harris administration’s decision on the temporary waiver came hours of the WTO General Council’s discussion on the TRIPS waiver on 5 May.
The WTO Director-General Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who had promoted the so-called “third-way” approach that is being seen as an attempt to undermine the TRIPS waiver, has not officially responded to the Biden-Harris administration’s decision to support the temporary waiver and its willingness to join text-based negotiations for finalizing the waiver.
At the time of writing, the WTO has not put out any statement on its website about the DG’s response to the Biden-Harris administration’s decision to support the temporary waiver.
During the discussion on the TRIPS waiver at the General Council meeting on 5 May, Ms Okonjo-Iweala said “the issue of equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics is both the moral and economic issue of our time.”
In her concluding statement at the meeting, the DG said that “vaccine policy is economic policy because the global economic recovery cannot be sustained unless we find a way to get equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”
“Let me say that WTO members need to act on four fronts. We need to have a wholesome approach that some members have mentioned,” she added.
The four fronts highlighted by the DG include: (1) sharing vaccines currently being stored by countries; (2) the need to look at export restrictions, bureaucratic, and other hurdles; (3) the need to work with manufacturers to enable them to mobilize existing capacity that is idle in several developing countries such as India, South Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal, and Brazil among others; and (4) members must discuss the revised text to be tabled soon by the proponents (of the waiver).
At the General Council (GC) meeting, the TRIPS Council chair presented his report on the discussions held thus far, while informing the GC that members have agreed to continue their discussions in the coming days on all the outstanding issues.
The chair, Ambassador Dagfinn Sorli from Norway, suggested that the proponents are expected to submit a revised proposal later this month (see SUNS #9339 dated 4 May).
The US charge d’affaires David Bisbee welcomed the TRIPS Council chair’s report, saying that the US “is ready to work with all other members on a global response to the COVID-19” and is ready to arrive at a global solution.
The TRIPS waiver proposal co-sponsored by South Africa, India, and 58 other countries urgently called for text-based negotiations.
Both South Africa and India informed members of their intention to circulate a revised proposal soon for starting the text-based negotiations.
At the General Council meeting on 5 May, South Africa’s trade envoy, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, said the waiver issue is an “emotive” issue, suggesting that around 150 countries are unlikely to have the vaccination for a number of years.
The humanitarian situation on the ground is very grim, with India being most affected, she said.
She said that it is an exceptional circumstance requiring exceptional solutions, quoting Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement that says that “in exceptional circumstances, the Ministerial Conference may decide to waive an obligation imposed on a Member by this Agreement or any of the Multilateral Trade Agreements.”
Significantly, Ambassador Xolelwa said that in these “exceptional” and “unprecedented” circumstances, the world needs solidarity and cooperation to address the burning issue of equitable access for therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines.
Ambassador Xolelwa suggested that the waiver will pave the way for ramping up the production of diagnostics and therapeutics across countries to address the worst supply-side challenges centring around the COVID-19 vaccine shortages.
Ambassador Xolelwa said that the world economy could suffer a loss of the magnitude of $9.2 trillion and making vaccines available in the shortest possible time is the best option. The waiver would address this option of ensuring equitable access for therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines.
She referred to the un-utilized capacity that is available in several countries which can be addressed through a “limited waiver.”
The South African trade envoy briefly spoke about their revised proposal based on the scope of the waiver, clarification of the products and technologies needed for containing the pandemic, the duration of the waiver, and so on.
She said that the duration of the waiver will indicate the time-frames needed for the waiver. She urged members to engage constructively in finalizing the waiver.
India’s trade envoy Ambassador Brajendra Navnit provided a graphic picture of the worsening pandemic and the ever-mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus that is wreaking havoc across countries.
He said the vast public funding and tremendous scientific progress that resulted in successful COVID-19 vaccines has not improved overall global vaccination.
Ambassador Navnit said “the promise of international solidarity and of “global public goods” sounds hollow as staggering inequity in access persists and as the members of WTO continue to fail to work in solidarity and act to lift intellectual property monopolies.”
He emphasized that “addressing intellectual property challenges is a prerequisite if we are to meet this objective in the shortest possible time-frame.”
The Indian trade envoy said that he has urged the WTO secretariat “to compile data as part of monitoring exercise as to how many Voluntary Licensing agreements have been achieved as an outcome of those events, how many vaccine doses have been added to the overall capacity and how much of such doses have been actually delivered to countries.”
He argued that this transparency exercise will be useful to gauge the extent to which Voluntary Licenses are delivering, suggesting that the current supply of vaccines are dependent “on secretive voluntary licensing manufacturing agreements built on exclusive monopolies and driven by commercial motives.”
Ambassador Navnit said that the world needs around 10 billion doses annually while the existing approaches of voluntary licensing could deliver only 4% of their projected output in 2020, i.e. 31 million doses.
It raises serious questions as to “how and from where the current requirements (of vaccines) will be met? What gives them the comfort that projected production by companies will be achieved this year?”
India said that evidence-based analysis suggests that each dollar invested by rich countries in getting vaccines to the poorest countries will get them approximately $4.80 in return.
“Delaying vaccine deployment in the developing world to lock in profit-boosting patent protections threatens the safety of their own citizens who financed the vaccines in the first place,” Ambassador Navnit warned.
Therefore, he said, “not sharing the vaccine IP and technology put them at risk if even more dangerous variants emerge,” with adverse effects on global travel, tourism, hospitality and other industries.
Members, he said, “can control Covid-19, if we act now to boost manufacturing through textual discussions on the Waiver.”
Moreover, “the failure to respond in a timely manner on the TRIPS Waiver proposal undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the WTO.”
In a strong statement, the Indonesian trade envoy, Ambassador Syamsul Bahri Siregar, reiterated that the waiver proposal must remain the top priority of the WTO at this critical moment.
He suggested that pandemics have the deadly potential of tearing down countries. “As long as the inequitable access for vaccines is not resolved, we will see this virus would mutate and [hamper] our effort for recovery.”
Indonesia urged the opponents to see the waiver proposal from the point of view of solidarity and cooperation.
Indonesia said in our history, we find that monopolistic approach never helped countries in addressing a pandemic.
Out of the 40-odd countries that spoke at the meeting, close to 30 members supported the waiver and immediate text-based negotiations.
The coordinators of the African Group, the LDCs (least developed countries), the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) Group, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Cameroon, and St. Lucia on behalf of CARICOM supported the waiver at the meeting.
The opponents to the waiver coalesced around the DG’s “third-way” approach, encouraging her to hold more negotiations with the stakeholders.
Brazil, which is one of the strongest opponents to the waiver proposal, said it would support the DG’s discussions with all the stakeholders, indicating that it would work with the “third-way” approach as enunciated by the DG.
Japan supported the DG’s “third-way” approach, while Switzerland also said that it supports the DG’s approach.
The European Union said it will support using the TRIPS flexibilities, including the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.
The EU said a waiver from complying with the compulsory licensing conditionalities can be considered, according to people familiar with the proceedings.
With the Biden-Harris administration having now expressed support for the temporary waiver, the opponents to the waiver have to come to terms with text-based negotiations, which they had opposed vehemently all these months.
Further, the opponents’ proposed trade and health initiative is almost punctured because of the US administration’s bold move, said a person, who asked not to be quoted. – Third World Network
Published in SUNS #9342 dated 7 May 2021