[Ip-health] TWN Info: Seven countries urge WTO DG to hold direct talks with Big Pharma

Sangeeta Shashikant sangeeta at twnetwork.org
Thu Mar 11 01:48:16 PST 2021

TWN Info Service on Trade, Intellectual Property and Health
11 March 2021
Third World Network

Seven countries urge WTO DG to hold direct talks with Big Pharma
Published in SUNS #9303 dated 11 March 2021

Geneva, 10 Mar (D. Ravi Kanth) – A group of seven countries – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Turkey, Chile and Colombia – has apparently acted illegally in violation of WTO rules by urging the WTO Director-General Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to conduct discussions directly with vaccine developers and manufacturers, said people familiar with the development.

There is a growing suspicion that the DG seems to have provoked the seven countries to issue the joint statement hours after her meeting with Big Pharma on 9 March in an attempt to undermine calls by almost 118 countries for text-based negotiations on the TRIPS waiver to combat COVID-19, said people, who asked not to be quoted.

“The DG’s refrain of a “Third Way” is nothing new and we have gone through this route and failed time and time again,” said a capital-based official.

“The “Third Way” is nothing but a diversionary tactic by the DG for running away from the TRIPS waiver proposal in the face of growing support from members at the WTO, US Congressmen, and international civil society,” the capital-based official told the SUNS.

The series of developments starting with a meeting between the DG and the African Group on 8 March suggest the changing narrative deployed by the DG while participating in meetings with the vaccine producers on 8-9 March, said people who asked not to be quoted.

In a joint proposal (Job/GC/230) issued on 9 March, the seven countries that include some trenchant critics of the TRIPS waiver such as Australia, Canada and Norway, have utterly disregarded the rules about the DG’s role and responsibilities as set out in the Marrakesh Agreement, said people, who asked not to be quoted.

According to paragraph 4 of Article VI of the Marrakesh Agreement, “the responsibilities of the Director-General and of the staff of the Secretariat shall be exclusively international in character. In the discharge of their duties, the Director-General and the staff of the Secretariat shall not seek or accept instructions from any government or any other authority external to the WTO. They shall refrain from any action which might adversely reflect on their position as international officials. The Members of the WTO shall respect the international character of the responsibilities of the Director-General and of the staff of the Secretariat and shall not seek to influence them in the discharge of their duties.”

Yet, the seven countries have chosen to violate the cardinal principle as set out in the Marrakesh Agreement that the DG cannot discuss/negotiate with Big Pharma as it is not her duty/ responsibility, said people, who asked not to be quoted.


In their joint proposal circulated on 9 March, the seven countries urged the DG to “promptly convene and hold discussions with both vaccine developers and vaccine manufacturers, as well as developers and manufacturers of other COVID-19-related medical products, in coordination with the World Health Organization and other relevant organizations.”

The proponents said that “there is an urgent need to further enhance the international effort to promote the rapid, global and equitable distribution of affordable, safe and effective COVID-19-related medical products, and vaccines in particular, with a view to limiting the impact of the pandemic on people, economies and societies, and to help foster a rapid, inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery.”

The seven countries said that “they believe that the scaling up of vaccine production must be a fundamental priority, as no one is safe until everyone is safe,” an argument also advanced by the proponents of the TRIPS waiver, said people familiar with the development.

The seven countries said that they “recognize the significant contributions of multilateral cooperation and innovative approaches such as the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX Facility, and believe that the WTO can similarly contribute to these global efforts in a complementary fashion.”

The seven countries argued that in “these exceptional times that require a strong and purposeful multilateral response to end the pandemic, the co-sponsors of this communication believe that the WTO, as the global hub for trade, and particularly in a pandemic where the relevance of trade for lives and livelihoods has become even more evident, possesses considerable convening power.”

The seven countries said they “believe that the WTO should rapidly make use of its resources to the full extent to foster a prompt, pragmatic and tangible acceleration in the global response to COVID-19, and particularly the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” arguing that they “believe that the WTO, and particularly its Secretariat, can and should undertake this work in parallel to ongoing discussions among Members on the trade- related aspects of the COVID-19 response, and without prejudice to these discussions.”


The joint proposal emphasized the DG’s role in “helping to ensure that any unused or under-utilized capacity for the production of affordable, safe and effective vaccines, at any stage in the process, is promptly identified and used as fully as it is technically possible, with a view to a net increase in global production of COVID-19 vaccines, and provided that this is not to the detriment of the production of other essential vaccines.”

They encouraged the DG’s help in “facilitating and promoting the creation of mutually beneficial licensing partnerships between vaccine developers and vaccine manufacturers, including for the collaborative and prompt transfer of expertise, know-how and technology.”

The proponents underscored the need for “promptly identifying and addressing, in a consensus-based manner, any trade-related impediments to the utilization of production capacity and the scaling up of vaccine production, as well as to the production and distribution of other COVID-19-related medical products, recalling the right of WTO Members to use, to the full, the provisions in the TRIPS Agreement, which provide flexibility to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all.”


The chain of events before the proposal was issued to coincide with the TRIPS Council meeting that started on 10 March, are also revealing.

The DG, for example, told the African Group on 8 March about how nice it would be for Africa to secure voluntary licenses for manufacturing vaccines while arguing that the negotiations on the TRIPS waiver must continue on a parallel track.

On 9 March, she told the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) group of countries that she fully supports the TRIPS waiver but expressed doubts whether it would help in ramping up global production of vaccines because of the manufacturing difficulties.

She said at the ACP meeting that she has been participating in the meetings convened by the WHO with Big Pharma (see SUNS #9302 dated 10 March 2021).


The WTO Secretariat, which kept silent about the DG’s meeting with Big Pharma, issued a somewhat vague press release on its website.

According to the WTO press release on 9 March, titled “DG calls on COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to increase production in developing countries,” the DG called on COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers “to do more to ramp up production in developing countries to combat the vaccine supply shortage that is excluding many lower-income nations from access.”

“In remarks to an event hosted by the UK think tank Chatham House, she said cooperation on trade, and action at the WTO, would help accelerate vaccine scale-up,” the WTO said.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala said that “we have to scale up and scale out COVID-19 vaccine production, particularly in emerging markets and developing countries.”

She said “given the years required to build new manufacturing facilities from scratch, increasing production in the short-term means making the most of existing manufacturing capacity – finding existing sites and turning them around.”

Recent experience suggests that re-purposing facilities and vetting them for safety and quality can happen in six or seven months, less than half as long as previously thought.

Further, she said that “by bringing more production online around the world, vaccine manufacturers would send a signal that they are taking action,” and “that people and governments in low- and middle-income countries can expect to get access to affordable vaccines within a reasonable timeframe.”

“Discussions during the conference had highlighted three constraints to ramping up production, the Director- General noted: scarcity of raw materials, shortages of qualified and experienced personnel, and supply chain problems linked to export restrictions and prohibitions as well as excessive bureaucracy,” the press release suggested.

The DG acknowledged that trade restrictions would slow down production, and make it more expensive.

“Restrictions should be transparent, proportionate to the problem at hand, and members should provide timelines for when they will be phased out,” she said.

She reported that WTO monitoring indicates that 59 members and 7 observers still had some pandemic-related export restrictions or licensing requirements in place at the end of February, primarily for personal protective equipment.

It was welcome that these figures were lower than the 91 countries that had brought in such measures over the past year. However, “not all pandemic-related export restrictions have been notified,” she said. “Not all of them appear to be temporary. Not all of them are proportionate.”

Using this opportunity, she said “we must strengthen our monitoring and reporting function,” adding “that her objective would be to encourage members to drop or reduce export restrictions, or set timelines for phase-out, to help minimize problems in the vaccine supply chain.”

She invited manufacturers to tell the WTO about the problems they are encountering in real time, “so we can put them before our membership and find ways they can be minimized and if possible solved.”

Contrary to her earlier statement at the ACP Group meeting where she said that she fully supports the TRIPS waiver, “the Director-General referred to the ongoing debate at the WTO on a proposal to waive standard WTO intellectual property rules for COVID-related vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.”

According to the WTO press release, “she argued that it was possible to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” continuing the search for solutions in the TRIPS debate, while simultaneously taking action to increase production, especially in emerging markets and developing countries where such possibilities exist.”

The press release says, “she expressed hope that it would be possible for manufacturers from developed and developing countries to come together with civil society groups, organizations such as the World Health Organization, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (which together run the COVAX facility), and business associations including the International Chamber of Commerce to find ways to increase vaccine production.”

Finally, she acknowledged that “the 8-9 March Global C19 Vaccine Supply Chain and Manufacturing Summit” was convened by Chatham House (a developed country think tank) and sponsored by COVAX (the COVID-19 vaccine initiative led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance), together with the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN), the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).”

The press release also issued a caveat: “The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule, so the above report on the Director-General’s speech does not reflect views attributed to other participants.”

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