[Ip-health] Bloomberg: WTO’s Holiday From Vaccine Equity Talks Draws Calls for Action

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Mon Jul 26 02:48:43 PDT 2021



WTO’s Holiday From Vaccine Equity Talks Draws Calls for Action

By Bryce Baschuk
July 26, 2021, 10:46 AM GMT+2

 EU, U.K., others are stalling while misery widens, critics say
 WHO chief criticizes the ‘moral failure’ of vaccine inequity

An urgent global effort to rebalance the inequity between rich, vaccinated
nations and poor nations sliding further into pandemic misery is colliding
with an immovable calendar conflict: the European summer holiday.

Next week World Trade Organization delegates are planning to depart Geneva
for their August break and, in doing so, pause their fractious debate over
a proposal to waive intellectual-property protections for Covid-19 shots
until the second week of September.

Before they leave, members will adopt a report that acknowledges they’ve
made scant headway on the proposal aimed at making doses more widely
available, which the world’s top health expert says is critical to ending a
“moral failure.”

“With so many lives on the line, profits and patents must come second,”
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said
during a virtual summit last week.

Rich-Poor Divide

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala previously urged ambassadors to
shorten their usual six-week summer holiday to focus on pressing issues
like the waiver. Nevertheless, members aren’t planning to reconsider the
matter until the week of Sept. 6, according to officials familiar with the

“August doesn’t matter in Geneva; it doesn’t matter if people are dying
around the world,” said Shailly Gupta, a spokesperson at Médecins Sans
Frontières. “We hope members will move at a faster pace.”

Disagreement persists on the fundamental question of whether a waiver is
the “appropriate and most effective way” to address the shortage of
vaccines, according to a draft status report produced by Dagfinn Sørli, the
chairman of WTO council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property
Rights, or TRIPS.

That split could sink prospects for an ambitious vaccine waiver because WTO
decisions must be taken on the basis of consensus -- which means any of the
164 members can veto a final agreement for any reason.

Proponents of the waiver had hoped to conclude their negotiations by the
end of July and are now criticizing the European Union and other developed
nations for sandbagging the talks.

EU ‘Not Interested’

The European Commission, which opposes a WTO TRIPS waiver, has proposed a
series of measures that it argues will create greater legal certainty for
nations to leverage existing trade tools in order to expand their
production capacities.

“The EU is not interested,” Gupta said. “Switzerland, Norway and the United
Kingdom are not engaging. They’re saying: ‘This or that won’t work; the
waiver won’t work.’ There is no intention of engaging.”

A spokesman for the EU mission in Geneva declined to comment.

Critics counter that the proposal from Brussels is a distraction to
redirect focus from India and South Africa’s earlier waiver proposal and to
prevent members from engaging in more detailed negotiations.

“The EU’s actions are incredibly cynical and dangerous,” said Lori Wallach,
the founder of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “They have submitted a
paper that basically conflicts with the text-based negotiations by saying
‘We don’t want a waiver.’”

The U.S., meanwhile, has taken a back seat in the process and enthusiasm
about Washington’s engagement on the issue has begun to wane in the three
months since Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced American support
for a waiver.

Though Tai’s surprise announcement briefly knocked shares of Moderna Inc.,
Pfizer Inc., and BioNTech SE, the stocks quickly rebounded and all are now
trading at or near their highest levels of the year.

“People feel that message from Ambassador Tai is not playing out on the
ground or being implemented in a meaningful way,” said Thiru
Balasubramaniam a managing director at Knowledge Ecology International in

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office in Washington didn’t
respond to a request for comment.

Waiver Drawbacks

Most nations producing the vaccines oppose a blanket waiver to the WTO’s
intellectual property rules because they say it would harm innovation, do
little to expand access to vaccines and may even backfire.

Specifically, opponents to the waiver say it would create a chaotic
patchwork of laws, unravel existing industry partnerships, lead to a supply
crunch for scarce vaccine inputs and inject even more uncertainty into
already complex arrangements.

There’s also the possibility that an IP waiver could result in the
production of counterfeit and substandard medicines, which could increase
vaccine hesitancy that’s already pervasive in even the world’s wealthiest

“Everybody knows IP isn’t the problem and there is no quick fix to
vaccinating the world with the latest technology,” said Robert Grant, a
senior director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Most governments know
this but due to the political sensitivities they won’t say it publicly.”

Uneven Distribution

Indeed, the waiver debate is a politically explosive issue for nations with
high vaccination rates because they don’t want to be seen as standing in
the way of getting life-saving drugs to poor nations whose citizens are
suffering at disproportionate rates.

To date, 75% of vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries and
only 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose,
according to WHO statistics.

Drug manufacturers say they are working every day to address the real
bottlenecks and are on track to deliver 11 billion vaccines by year-end --
enough to inoculate the world’s entire adult population.

While diplomats go on holiday, the process of getting the vaccines out
there hasn’t stopped, said a spokeswoman for the International Federation
of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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