WTO Touts Progress in Covid Vaccine Waiver Talks But No Agreement Yet

U.S., EU, India and South Africa advanced a compromise outcome to circumvent certain WTO rules for vaccine production.

Talks aimed at waiving intellectual-property rules for Covid-19 vaccines reached a potential breakthrough as the U.S., EU, India and South Africa advanced a compromise outcome to circumvent certain World Trade Organization rules for vaccine production. 

“This is a major step forward and this compromise is the result of many long and difficult hours of negotiations,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement on Wednesday. “But we are not there yet.”  

The development could mark important progress in a nearly two-year debate over a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily waive enforcement of certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights for the development of Covid-19 shots. 

The compromise text would allow certain developing nations to authorize the use of ingredients and processes needed to produce and supply vaccines without the consent of the right holder, according to a copy of the document seen by Bloomberg. 

The scope of the agreement is limited to Covid-19 vaccines and omits tests, therapeutics and other drugs that India and South Africa sought to include in their initial proposal. The agreement also sets an eligibility cap on developing nations that exported less than 10% of global Covid-19 vaccine exports in 2021, which means China would not be eligible to waive IP rights for Covid-19 vaccine production. 

Politico reported earlier on the compromise. 

If agreed by the WTO membership, a waiver would provide an important signal that those in eligible nations who replicate Covid-19 vaccine recipes and manufacturing processes won’t be subject to WTO-authorized sanctions. WTO agreements require consensus backing from its 164 members, meaning any one government can block the adoption of a TRIPS waiver for any reason. 

The U.S. confirmed that the group had reached a “compromise outcome” that offers “the most promising path toward achieving a concrete and meaningful outcome,” according to a tweet published by U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Adam Hodge. 

“While no agreement on text has been reached and we are in the process of consulting on the outcome, the U.S. will continue to engage with WTO members as part of our comprehensive effort to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Hodge said. 

European Commission Spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer declined to say whether an agreement had been reached in an emailed statement. The Indian and South African missions to the WTO did not respond to requests for comment. 

The talks have been led by Okonjo-Iweala, who has pushed nations to reach an agreement ahead of the WTO’s ministerial conference scheduled for the week of June 13. For many, the talks are seen as a critical test of the WTO’s relevance after the beleaguered organization has failed to advance any multilateral agreements for the better part of the past decade. 

Vaccine makers denounced the proposed waiver as “unnecessary and irrelevant,” according to a statement issued by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations. “The IP TRIPS waiver proposals should be recognized for what they are -- political posturing that are at best a distraction, at worse creating uncertainty that can undermine innovation’s ability to respond to the current and future response to pandemics.” 

It remains unclear whether two key opponents to the IP waver proposal -- the U.K. and Switzerland -- will support the compromised text. 

The U.K.’s Ambassador to the WTO Simon Manley declined to comment on the leaked text and said that the U.K. was “excluded from the quad, so we haven’t received any text officially.” 

“Our position is well known: The IP framework has enabled our response to this pandemic and we need it to be fit to enable our response to future pandemics,” Manley said. “We will consider any text that emerges from the quad discussions in that light.” 

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