US lawmakers urge Biden to support TRIPS waiver move at WTO

Geneva, 19 Feb (D. Ravi Kanth) – A group of lawmakers from the Democratic Party want US President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS waiver proposal that seeks to temporarily suspend several provisions in the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, said a source familiar with the development. South Africa, India, and nine other developing countries have proposed the TRIPS waiver for temporarily suspending provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and protection of undisclosed information in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic by ramping up production of medical equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines across many countries.
Around 90 countries have broadly supported the TRIPS waiver proposal at the WTO, South Africa’s leading TRIPS negotiator Mr Mustaqeem Da Gama told the SUNS on 19 February.
Meanwhile, amidst a groundswell of support from international civil society organizations for the TRIPS waiver, US lawmakers from the Democratic Party have also joined forces to persuade President Biden to agree to the waiver proposal, according to a report in the Washington Trade Daily (WTD) on 19 February.
The US House Representative Ms Jan Schakowsky “is circulating a letter to President Biden for signature by her colleagues urging him to reverse the Trump Administration’s opposition to the waiver,” according to the WTD.
At a virtual meeting on 18 February, Ms Schakowsky informed participants that she had raised the issue at a Democratic Caucus meeting the previous day and the US House Speaker Ms Nancy Pelosi expressed support for the waiver, the WTD report suggested.
Speaking at the same virtual meeting, Mr Mustaqeem Da Gama informed the participants that the waiver proposal “is about justice, it’s about saving lives.”
He said that the WTO members are discussing how to reach common ground, suggesting that a better system is needed to respond to global pandemics.
When asked at the daily White House press briefing on 18 February whether the Biden-Harris administration will support the TRIPS waiver proposal, the spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the current focus is to work with the COVAX facility being implemented by the World Health Organization and the Geneva-based GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance) to ensure the distribution of vaccines around the world, according to the WTD report.
President Biden is set to announce financial support of around $4 billion to COVAX to ensure the distribution of vaccines around the world.
Significantly, in an interview to the Guardian newspaper on 19 February, Mr Da Gama said “the scramble over Covid vaccines should alert rich countries to the power of profit-driven companies that control production of crucial medicines.”
“While Rome is burning, we are fiddling around [waiting],” said Mr Da Gama, who called on nations where many of these pharmaceutical firms are based to stop blocking the patent waiver proposed at the WTO.
“The first effective vaccines were ready four or five months ago. Do you think it would have made a difference if we had the capacity to manufacture? I certainly think so,” Mr Da Gama said.
“Supplies are low after rich countries bought more vaccines than they needed to, leading to predictions that many low-income countries may not be able to reach mass immunization until 2024,” he told the Guardian.
“More structural change was needed to enable countries to make their own vaccines instead of relying on terms set by donors or profit-driven companies,” he said, suggesting that “the infrastructure right now is providing a minimum and leaving the rest to the private sector.”
“I don’t think governments should be outsourcing their responsibility for public health to private companies who are responsible to shareholders only,” he said.
Meanwhile, on 18 February, a group of South American countries – Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay – expressed sharp concern over the European Union’s trade-restrictive measures on the export of COVID-19 vaccines that goes against Brussels’ Trade and Health initiative, which is being jointly advanced with other members of the Ottawa Group.
The joint complaint by the five South American countries appears to have exposed the double standards adopted by the EU along with other members of the Ottawa Group of countries that include Canada, Australia, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore, Korea, Chile, and Kenya that are calling for a General Council decision on the Trade and Health initiative, said a TRIPS negotiator, who asked not to be quoted.
While the EU and other members of the Ottawa Group of countries have opposed the TRIPS waiver, they reckon that their Trade and Health initiative that seeks further liberalization of trade in medical products, including vaccines will address the shortage of vaccines, the negotiator said.
In their joint proposal (WT/GC/W/818), the five countries circulated a draft General Council decision, arguing that “the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges in recent history, having a deep social and economic impact worldwide.”
The South American countries said that “a global pandemic can only be resolved collectively and through enhanced multilateral cooperation.”
Therefore, “access to COVID-19 vaccines to all WTO Members is essential in collectively fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic,” the South American countries said, underscoring the need to ensure that international trade remains a powerful tool to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic while contributing to global economic recovery.
While acknowledging that the EU is a supporter of a rules-based trading system and sponsor of the Trade and Health initiative that calls on WTO Members “to make their utmost efforts to prevent further disruptions in the supply chains of essential medical goods,” the five countries expressed their serious concern over the EU’s recent actions.
The five countries cautioned against the specific measures being implemented by the EU. The measures include:
1. The recent European Union’s decision to put in place a Transparency and Authorization Mechanism for Exports of COVID-19 Vaccines, and its Implementing Regulation, which allows for the adoption of export restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines from the territory of the European Union;
2. Implementing such measures would disrupt significantly the supply chains and global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and its overall predictability; and
3. The effects of such measures may negatively impact the current and future fair access to essential medicines for all WTO Members, including for the European Union.
They jointly called on the EU “to exercise restraint in the adoption and implementation of any such measures.”
Meanwhile, the Ottawa Group of countries also circulated on 18 February their proposal on “Trade and Health: COVID-19 and Beyond” that calls for “ensuring access to essential medical goods during a pandemic” and “resilient and robust supply chains that function in a stable and predictable trading environment.”
The twelve members of the Ottawa Group – Canada, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Korea, Brazil, Chile, and Kenya – have called on WTO members to take several actions to respond to the current COVID-19 related challenges in international trade.
“These actions,” according to the co-sponsors, “are intended to facilitate trade in essential medical goods in these critical times and enhance the capacity of the trading system to deal with a public health emergency.”
They claimed that their set of actions are “not intended to be prescriptive and do not cover the whole universe of possible measures that could support trade in essential medical goods.”
“Rather, they reflect emerging best practices and should provide sufficient flexibility to be adapted to differing national circumstances,” the co-sponsors argued.
Published in SUNS #9290 dated 22 February 2021