SPEECHES — DG NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA

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One thing that came out of today's discussions is that it was only through working together across borders that scientists developed safe and effective vaccines in record time. And it is only by working together, across borders, that we'll be able to solve the problems [of vaccine scarcity and equitable access] discussed today. This is a problem of the global commons, and we have to solve it together.

Our purpose today was to contribute to efforts to increase vaccine production and broaden access, starting with the immediate term.

Specifically we had three goals:

The first was to pinpoint the obstacles, particularly the trade-related obstacles, to ramping up production, and to equitably distributing and administering vaccines — and we looked at how the WTO could contribute to these solutions.

The second was to bring together people who are able to increase and to scale up manufacturing, people in a position to share technology and knowhow, and people willing to finance additional manufacturing capacity.

And third, to think about the road ahead, including on the TRIPS waiver and incentives for research and development, so that we get the medical technologies we need, and no country is left at the back of the line waiting. If there is one refrain we heard continuously from everyone today it is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

We heard first-hand from governments and vaccine manufacturers from developed, developing, and least developed countries, as well as a wide range of other stakeholders from international organizations, civil society and development finance institutions.

And we heard good news: that supplies are ramping up and companies are learning by doing, that there have been major gains in productivity, and that there is still capacity. We also heard that there is a willingness to finance investment in vaccine manufacturing both in the short- and long-term, and there are ideas and energy to do things differently.

However, we heard from many that we need to do more. It hasn't really been business as usual, so we may need to move on to “business unusual” to solve the problems before us.

In the discussions today we heard a great deal of agreement. We agree that it's not acceptable for people and countries to have to wait indefinitely for vaccines. We do not want to repeat experiences of the past.

We heard a consensus on the urgent need to scale up production and vaccinate everyone, because every day the shortage continues, scope for dangerous new variants will increase, and the number of prevent preventable deaths will grow. The economic impact of these delays can and has been quantified by many institutions, including the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.

It was agreed that production capacity needs to be expanded, particularly in developing and least developed countries and emerging markets. And that vaccine distribution needs to be more effective and more equitable.

We heard that open cross-border trade in raw materials, and other inputs, was essential for maintaining and scaling up production, and that supply chains in these inputs must be maintained.

Also widely shared was the view that innovation, research and development will be vital for dealing with COVID-19 variants and in other health crises.

We had useful exchanges on issues where some perspectives were different, such as on the future shape of vaccine supply chains, on the appropriate role for intellectual property protections, on issues of vaccine contract transparency — which was pointed to by many as an important factor in appropriate pricing and distribution and a critical part of access and equity.

Concerns expressed by some about cross-border supply chain operations, including export restrictions and shortages of skilled personnel reinforced my view, and hopefully that of members, that the WTO must and can play a central part in the response to this crisis.

Various perspectives about the TRIPS Agreement, and whether the existing flexibilities are enough to address developing country needs were put on the table. These echoed the discussions on the waiver proposal going on in the TRIPS Council, and I want to reiterate that today is a way of contributing to that discussion.

I agree with the view that the WTO is a logical forum for finding a way forward on these issues, and I hope that the ideas raised here will contribute to convergence in the TRIPS Council on meaningful results that can contribute to the goals that we have.

I hope that the discussion today, listening to each other, seeing that we all share a common goal, and that we may not be so far apart, will lead to the willingness to come to the middle,  and work out something that will be acceptable to all.

Participants were generally of the view that ramping up vaccine manufacturing capacity is a complex process. It requires large, long-term investment and sustainable business models. It relies on open international supply lines for ingredients and equipment. We heard how shortages of even a single piece of equipment, filters, can halt operations at a production facility. Vaccine manufacturing necessitates collaboration, and the movement of skilled labour, to facilitate transfer of technology and knowhow.

Safety is a paramount consideration, and quality is the other part of safety. This demands effective regulatory capacity and stringent compliance, down to the factory floor. Indeed we heard this is a big risk companies factor in when making decisions as to where to produce, and how to produce. I hope that they've heard sufficient encouragement today, to enable us to move towards leveraging the existing capacities in emerging markets and developing countries mentioned repeatedly today, which could actually help to take care of the shortages talked about.

Turning capacity around to produce COVID-19 vaccines is not only about the physical space alone. We heard repeatedly that it requires transfer of technology and knowhow, together with investment and support for quality assurance.

We also learned about how existing licensing arrangements have operated — including an example of how skills transfer was carried out in a few as six months. We also heard calls for support to build human capital, and to help build regulatory cooperation.

Some participants suggested more active matchmaking to connect companies that have the investment capacity with those that have potential for expanding production capacity, even in the short term.

We also heard about ongoing efforts to build new manufacturing capacity, and the lessons that can be learned from that.

We also began to see the aspects of the collaboration we need to make things happen. We had many international organizations show they are willing to work together to bring to fruition things like putting in place technical expertise, helping with capacity building and quality control, and investing directly in production.

I believe that today's exchanges have advanced our understanding of the challenges we face for scaling up vaccine production, and that working together is the only way ahead.

In the coming weeks and months, we expect concrete follow-up action. These issues are not easy, but the political will and engagement from the private sector displayed today, suggests it is possible.

As we move forward, I expect:

  • From WTO members:
    • Action to further reduce export restrictions and supply chain barriers, and to work with other organizations to facilitate logistics and customs procedures.  We are monitoring this as part of our regular work, and we'll continue doing so to increase supplies and maintain robust supply chains. Trade has been underlined as a critical factor in production; it is incumbent upon WTO members to act.
    • Advance negotiations in the TRIPS Council on the waiver proposal and incentives for research and innovation. I hope that the ideas and the open dialogue heard will move us closer to agreement. 
  • For vaccine manufacturers:
    • Concrete moves to scale up vaccine manufacturing, both short-term turnaround of existing capacities, milking whatever productivity gains we can from current facilities, and taking steps to invest.
    • Increased technology and knowhow transfer, which many participants stressed would be necessary to make additional production work.
    • We need transparency in contract agreements and product pricing. We hope to continue this dialogue and to help monitoring steps in that direction.
  • For international organisations and financial institutions:
    • We noted your willingness to finance, both existing and new capacity, your willingness to work on capacity building for regulatory issues, not just for vaccines, but also for therapeutics and diagnostics, which are equally important.

I trust that we have found a good basis to deliver concrete action, and to continue this discussion that we've had today.

This should not be a one-off, we should continue to talk to each other, and make sure that we can deliver.

I hope that besides concrete action to increase capacity, this discussion has given us elements of a framework on trade and health that we can put together at the WTO, and that  can be put before ministers at the 12th Ministerial Conference in mid-December. Such a framework should provide for trade-related preparedness to handle this pandemic, and the next one.

 

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