WTO council offers hope for TRIPS vaccine proposal

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The WTO logo is pictured outside the headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

It has been more than eight months since South Africa and India’s delegations to the World Trade Organization tabled a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Yesterday, delegates to the global body’s Council for Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, finally agreed to move to the next stage of text-based negotiations amid growing international support for some version of the waiver.

The decision came at a two-day meeting of the TRIPS Council that concluded yesterday and followed weeks of growing momentum for South Africa and India’s proposal, which already had the support of more than 100 countries. Delegates are now rushing to have a draft that satisfies all of the different constituencies in the consensus-based WTO General Council meeting scheduled for July 21 and 22.

“It’s huge to see the WTO now tackle this with the urgency that is required.”

— Akshaya Kumar, director of crisis advocacy and special projects, Human Rights Watch

Those discussions will allow opponents of the waiver proposal, including the European Union, an opportunity to demand compromises or alterations. The EU already put forward an alternative proposal last week that relies on existing WTO mechanisms, particularly compulsory licensing, to address deepening inequities in global vaccine distribution. Under a compulsory license, countries can waive patent protections.

Nevertheless, at the TRIPS Council meeting observers said the fact that no delegation voiced opposition to moving to text-based negotiations of India and South Africa’s proposal signaled a weakening of EU’s resistance heading into the upcoming negotiations.

“This is a huge moment,” said Akshaya Kumar, the director of crisis advocacy and special projects at Human Rights Watch. “It’s huge to see the WTO now tackle this with the urgency that is required.”

Europe still can't get on board with the TRIPS waiver

Though the U.S. partially reversed its opposition to waiving intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, Europe is still firmly against what many see as a necessity for vaccine equity.

To ready a draft by the WTO General Council, delegates are preparing for near-daily meetings. Kumar said that signaled a dramatic advance in the timeline from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s earlier call to reach a decision on the waiver by December.

“We expect to see increased activity on both sides,” Kumar said. “From lobbyists from pharma, who have really ramped up their engagement in recent weeks, and from civil society, who are really mobilized and galvanized to demand a clear outcome.”

In May, U.S. President Joe Biden reversed American opposition to the proposal, announcing that the United States was at least willing to enter into text-based negotiations around waiving protections for vaccines.

Two major geopolitical groupings provided additional support this month. Foreign ministers from the BRICS countries — the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — called for ongoing consideration of the proposal. This was particularly significant given Brazil’s previous hard-line opposition to the waiver.

Days later, the trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which includes early opponents to the waiver, such as Australia and Canada, joined in the U.S. call for text-based negotiations specifically around vaccines.

That falls short of a revised version of the waiver proposal that was resubmitted last month, which covers a range of COVID-19-related health products and technologies, including access to information on their materials and components and their methods and means of manufacture.

The attempt to bridge this divide is likely to dominate the upcoming negotiations. In his statement at the TRIPS Council, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to WTO David Bisbee reaffirmed America’s support for text-based negotiations, but cautioned, “In our view, the most expeditious pathway toward consensus would be to focus our efforts on what actions might be needed to address the supply and distribution of vaccines specifically.”

Outright opponents of the waiver, including the EU, U.K., Switzerland, and South Korea, are unwilling to even go that far. The U.K.’s permanent representative to the WTO, Simon Manley, told the TRIPS Council, “we remain to be convinced how an IP waiver, if agreed, would increase the supply of Covid-19 goods.” And he continued to push for voluntary licensing of patents and technology transfers to increase vaccine production.

With its proposal last week, the European Commission also reiterated its view that an intellectual property waiver is unnecessary. Instead, it is advancing a mix of initiatives, including calling for an end to export restrictions, increased production, particularly through deals with manufacturers in low-income countries, and compulsory licenses.

But even as European leaders were finding themselves increasingly isolated globally in their opposition to the waiver, they are now facing mounting pressure at home.

European Parliamentarians voted narrowly yesterday to add an amendment to a resolution on meeting the global COVID-19 challenges that explicitly supports “proactive, constructive and text-based negotiations for a temporary waiver of the WTO TRIPS Agreement.” The resolution must still be approved in the coming days.

And France President Emmanuel Macron appeared to announce his support for waiving intellectual property protections on vaccines heading into the G-7 summit Friday. He will be joined there by two of the more significant remaining opponents to some form of a waiver: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.