WTO takes a step forward in COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver talks

The members of the World Trade Organisation, after months of debate, on June 9, 2021, took a first, small step towards a deal that aims at boosting the production of COVID-19 vaccines and the treatments through patent waivers or compulsory licensing deals.

The WTO had earlier struggled to move forward on the hotly debated issue, as all the decisions at the global trade body must be reached by the consensus of all the 164-member states.

However, as per the Geneva-based trade official, during the meeting which was held on June 9, the countries supported launching a process towards drafting an agreement and also agreed on the urgency of this discussion.

The official further added that the views on the matter meanwhile remain far apart and that an initial report on the progress in the text-based discussions was expected around July 21-22.

What is the issue of the COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver? Check details

Since October 2020, the World Trade Organisation has received calls from South Africa and India for the temporary removal of intellectual property protections.

The proponents have argued that such removal will boost the production in the developing countries of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, treatments as well as other vital medical tools that are significant to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The step of removing the intellectual property protections will help in addressing the dire inequity to access the vaccines especially.

Recent shift to support the proposal:

The notion coming particularly from the developing countries has long met with fierce opposition from the pharmaceutical giants and their host countries. They had insisted that the patents were not the main roadblocks to scale up the production and had warned that the move can hamper the innovation.

The positions, however, seemed to shift some last month, when the United States Government came out in support of a global patent waiver for COVID-19 jabs, along with other long-time opponents voicing openness to discuss the matter.

While addressing the recent debate at WTO, the US Charge d’ affaires David Brisbee stressed the US’s strong belief in IP protections.

However, he insisted that we all must do what is necessary to accelerate the manufacturing and the equitable distribution of vaccines. He added that the WTO must show that it can step up during the global crisis and can act efficiently to improve the lives of people.

Brisbee added that Washington has been still examining the revised proposal from India and South Africa and stated that it appeared to mark a relatively modest change.

Global patent waiver: A long road to go

Even though a small step has been taken by WTO and countries such as the US has come out in support, the other nations have stuck to their guns.

Some countries, such as Switzerland, prefer a scenario in which the pharmaceutical firms enter into a voluntary deal like AstraZeneca has done with the Serum Institute of India to make its vaccine jabs.

The European Union also on June 4, 2021, had presented a counter-proposal to the WTO calling for a multilateral pact that aims at boosting the production of the vaccines, not by suspending the patents but by making the licensing deals compulsory and by urging the nations to remove export restrictions.

That text, with a revised proposal by South Africa and India which is backed by 60 nations, will form the basis for the negotiations.

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