WTO approves vaccine-patent waiver to help combat Covid-19 pandemic

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (centre) delivering her speech at the closing session of the WTO conference, on June 17, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
India's commerce minister, Piyush Goyal, speaks to journalists at the WTO's headquarters, on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - The World Trade Organisation (WTO) approved a politically important deal on Friday (June 17) to water down intellectual property restrictions for the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines after an almost two-year effort involving scores of high-level meetings and much political arm twisting.

During the early morning hours in Geneva, WTO ministers approved a package of agreements that included the vaccine patent waiver, which Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala previously said was necessary to end the "morally unacceptable" inequity of access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The WTO’s last-minute deal – secured after an all-night negotiating session in Geneva – is an important victory for Dr Okonjo-Iweala, the former head of Gavi – the vaccine alliance – who actively stumped for the accord during her first year as the WTO’s top trade official.

At the same time, the deal delivers a significant blow to vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, which fought hard to prevent nations from undermining the intellectual-property framework that enabled them to produce multiple viable Covid-19 vaccines in record time – saving countless lives.

“The premise of an intellectual-property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines was flawed from the outset,” said Mr Thomas Cueni, the director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

“To this day, there is no evidence that IP has been a barrier to Covid-19 vaccine production or access.”

Ministers from the global trade body’s 164 members have been negotiating face-to-face since Sunday at the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The debate overcame a protracted fight between the United States and China over the Biden administration’s demand that China be clearly excluded from the deal – for fear that it would enable China to steal US technologies.

Vaccines have become a flashpoint for trade protectionism and many US policy makers want to prevent China from obtaining access to the mRNA technology that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna used to produce Covid-19 inoculations.

Though the Biden administration supported the idea of waiving IP rights for a vaccine, it never offered full-throated support for the deal until it emerged in the early hours in Geneva.

The deal will likely result in heavy political blow back from the US pharmaceutical sector and from Republican lawmakers who oppose it.

In recent weeks, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai found herself targeted by her former Capitol Hill colleagues for negotiating a backroom deal that many lawmakers feared would undermine American innovation.

Ultimately, the negotiation took so long and the global vaccine manufacturing effort worked so quickly that the WTO’s final deal will not have a meaningful impact on the production of Covid-19 jabs, as there is a global glut of them.

As of May, there were 2.1 billion excess doses of Covid-19 vaccines and their production has consistently outpaced the number of doses administered, according to data from the the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

“There is no longer a supply-side constraint on the availability of vaccines,” said Professor Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Members of delegations await the outcome of negotiations, at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva, on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

This week, a key proponent for the IP waiver – Indian Trade Minister Piyush Goyal – publicly acknowledged that “not a single plant to make manufacturing of vaccines will come with this” agreement.

India blamed powerful nations for dragging out the negotiations for so long that it finally lost its relevance as pharmaceutical manufacturers were ultimately able to produce an oversupply of vaccines.

“What we are getting is completely half-baked and it will not allow us to make any vaccines,” Mr Goyal said in a statement posted on his ministry’s website.

“Vaccines have already lost relevance,” he said. “It’s just too late; there is no demand for vaccines anymore.”

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