“The way the WTO handles this matter is critical,” DG Okonjo-Iweala told members. “We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to COVID-19 because the world is watching.”
“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,” she added.
At the General Council meeting, WTO members agreed to allow the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to continue consideration of the proposal first put forward by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations in response to COVID-19.
Members approved the status report submitted by the chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, indicating the current lack of consensus on this issue and highlighting the common goal shared by members of providing access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all. The status report provided a neutral and factual communication reflecting the state of play of discussions and the need for more time to advance discussions.
Over 40 delegations took the floor at the General Council under this agenda item. Members expressed different views in their discussion about the impact of IP protection in ensuring rapid and safe access to vaccines and other medical products.
Supporters of the proposal were of the view that the current challenges posed by the pandemic can only be effectively addressed by waiving certain TRIPS obligations. Other delegations remained unconvinced about the necessity for a waiver at the international level, with some members arguing that a waiver might undermine ongoing collaborative efforts.
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala intervened at the conclusion of the discussion. She extended her sympathy to those members that are experiencing an upsurge in the pandemic and thanked other members who have sought to help countries under stress.
She also welcomed the news that the proponents of the TRIPS waiver proposal were planning to submit a revised text initially submitted in October 2020 in a bid to reconcile positions. They requested the chair of the TRIPS Council to consider holding a meeting open to all members in the second half of May to discuss the revised proposal before the next formal TRIPS Council meeting scheduled for early June.
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all sides that allow the kinds of answers that our developing country members are looking at with respect to vaccines, whilst at the same time looking at research and innovation and how to protect them,” DG Okonko-Iweala said.
DG Okonjo-Iweala's full remarks are available here.
The TRIPS waiver proposal (IP/C/W/669) was initially submitted by South Africa and India and has since been co-sponsored by Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, and most recently Maldives, Fiji and Namibia — a total of 60 WTO members.
At a meeting of the TRIPS Council on 30 April, WTO members agreed to continue consideration of the proposal for a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations in response to COVID-19 and tasked the chair to report to the General Council on this decision at its 5-6 May meeting.