WTO reflects on intellectual property waivers for vaccines
By JAMEY KEATEN
GENEVA (AP) – Ambassadors of World Trade Organization countries on Wednesday resumed talks on trade rules protecting the technological know-how behind COVID-19 vaccines as growing pressure on rich countries to relax them – in order to help the poorest countries to fight against the pandemic.
The WTO General Council was considering a temporary waiver for intellectual property protection that South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support from the developing world and some progressive lawmakers in the West.
The authors of the proposal, which met resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, revised it in the hope of making it more acceptable.
No consensus – required by WTO rules – was to emerge from the two-day meeting of ambassadors on Wednesday and Thursday.
The co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between the various diplomatic missions to assert their point of view, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. A stalemate persists and the opposing sides remain very distant, the official said.
Some supporters saw more hope for the proposal after U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief trade official Katherine Tai said last month that gaping inequalities in access to COVID-19 vaccines among developed countries and developing countries were “totally unacceptable” and that the mistakes made in the global response to the HIV pandemic must not be repeated.
The argument, part of a long-standing debate over intellectual property protections, focuses on lifting patents, copyrights, and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand production and deployment of vaccines in the event of a supply shortage. The goal is to put the rules on hold for several years, just long enough to beat the pandemic.
The issue has become more urgent with an increase in cases in India, the second most populous country in the world and a key producer of vaccines, including one for COVID-19 which relies on technology from the University of Oxford and the Anglo-pharmaceutical manufacturer. -Swedish AstraZeneca.
Supporters, including the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolkit and insist there are no better time to use them than during the once-in-a-century pandemic that claimed 3.2 million lives, infected over 437 million people and devastated economies.
Opponents say a waiver would not be a panacea. They insist that the production of COVID-19 vaccines is complex and simply cannot be accelerated by facilitating intellectual property and claim that lifting protections could hinder future innovation.
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