Deadlock may again be the name of the game in the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organization (WTO), abbreviated as TRIPS.
A communication from Switzerland and Mexico questioning the need to extend the waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines to therapies and diagnostics lays bare the discrepancies and complexities of one of the most controversies facing the organization.
Readers may recall that on the 12e The Ministerial Conference (MC12) was hailed as a major success: “The WTO is back,” headlines around the world said, in essence. In the early hours of a sunny morning in Geneva on June 17, as cloudy-eyed delegates wrapped up their work, they announced, among other agreements, a OK on the conditional disclaimer of patents on COVID-19 vaccines.
While marking a real milestone in the negotiations that began in 2020, when India and South Africa introduced a text requiring such a waiver, the agreement, reached after intense negotiations, was narrower in scope than the original proposal. While the WTO could claim success, in reality the deal satisfied no one: its supporters, health activists and civil society rejected it as too limited, while Big Pharma fought tooth and nail to prevent any derogation agreement.
The June agreement explicitly called for the vaccine waiver to be extended to “production and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapies” within six months of its adoption, setting the deadline for the adoption of the waiver. agreement to December 19 – the first business day after December 17.
With less than six weeks remaining, time is running out. “The level of urgency within the WTO to reach consensus on this issue is difficult to gauge,” according to Priti Patnaik, a global health writer and author of a recently published article. book on the subject. “A series of countries remain undecided and have requested more information. It’s not even clear if supporters will go all the way to fight for it.
Informal discussions on the extension took place in September but came to nothing.
At a meeting last week in Geneva, TRIPS Council Chair Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone said that the absence, at this late stage, of concrete, text-based proposals on the issue of extension is “very concerning,” and urged delegations to explore all options to move forward.
The Ambassador will begin contacting individual members in the coming weeks to seek possible areas of convergence. South Africa, a co-sponsor of the initial waiver proposal, also indicated that its delegation had recently had bilateral contacts to try to find a way out of the impasse.
The only document presented so far is a November 1 communication from Mexico and Switzerland, which does not represent a formal negotiating position. This, however, raises questions about the trade body’s ability to achieve its goal of reaching an agreement by mid-December.
In essence, the Swiss and Mexican communication uses the same reasoning already advanced by Switzerland when opposing a waiver for COVID-19 vaccines at the height of the pandemic: a waiver would not be, argued the Switzerland and its pharmaceutical industry, as well as a number of Western companies. countries, are accelerating the rate of vaccination in the world, because the main problem lies, according to the industry, in the manufacture and distribution of the newly developed vaccines.
Today, write the two countries, the same argument can be put forward, even if in this case the problem is not that of rarity but that of a surplus of therapies and diagnostics available: “There is no there is no shortage of therapeutics. Instead, much of the innovators’ productive capacity sits idle due to lack of demand. […] This involves logistical and distribution issues, which are not related to intellectual property, but which need to be resolved. »
Diplomatic sources close to the negotiations say that, as things stand, governments are broadly divided into three groups:
- South Africa, India, Kenya, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Egypt, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States are those in favor of extending the waiver to include treatments and diagnostics.
- Countries questioning the need for an extension include Switzerland, Singapore, Japan, Canada, South Korea, the European Union and the United Kingdom.
- A third group, made up of Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Mexico, China and Chinese Taipei, is considering a compromise solution; a limited extension to include a specific list of therapeutic and diagnostic products. Today, more than 1,800 COVID-19 therapies are currently in various stages of the R&D pipeline.
The Swiss-Mexico joint letter notes that 138 bilateral voluntary license agreements with 127 countries have resulted in the creation of 191 production sites for COVID-19 therapies worldwide. Based on this information, the communication states that “we are not faced with a situation where we have a lack of access or a lack of capacity to manufacture IP-induced COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics. Therefore, no adjustment of the IP system seems necessary.
However, these arguments have so far failed to sway proponents of a broad waiver as originally proposed by India and South Africa. “The European Union, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are playing a cynical game of slowing down the WTO negotiations on the extension of the [MC12 TRIPS agreement] diagnosis and therapy,” said Thiru Balasubramaniam, Geneva representative of Knowledge Ecology International.
Balasubramaniam also noted that just this week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “one of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that the capacity to manufacture medicines, diagnostics, vaccines and other tools is concentrated in too few countries”.
For Balasubramaniam, “WTO members who express doubts about the obstacles posed by intellectual property with regard to access to treatments and diagnostics of COVID-19 should heed the advice of the World Health Organization. Health, the leading authority on global health”.
The TRIPS Council will meet again, informally, on 22 November. “We don’t have a lot of time,” admits the president. Further meetings are scheduled for December 6, with the possibility of calling members for another meeting on December 15, four days before the deadline.
Additional report by Philippe Mottaz.
This article was first published by the Geneva Observer.
Image credits: Raja Mataniari.
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