The US and France backed a proposal for a temporary waiver of patent protections for covid-19 vaccines, a move that was welcomed by India ahead of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on a deal to boost supplies of the life-saving jabs to poorer nations.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the Biden administration supports the proposal made by India and South Africa, which aims to aid efforts to ramp up vaccine supplies to as many people as quickly as possible.
“We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at WTO needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” she said late on Wednesday.
Following the US statement, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday said Brussels is ready to discuss the planned waiver. “The EU is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” she added.
Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron said he is “absolutely in favour” of the proposal.
In a submission before the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council of WTO on 2 October, India and South Africa urged WTO members for a waiver of certain rules of the TRIPS pact.
They said this would ensure intellectual property (IP) rights such as patents, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to timely access to affordable vaccines and medicines or to scaling up research, development, manufacturing, and supply of medical products essential to combat covid.
The proposal has been discussed many times at the TRIPS Council, but members are yet to reach a consensus on a text-based negotiation. Developed countries or blocs, including the US, EU, UK, Canada, Japan, Australia and Switzerland had so far opposed the proposal, which has been co-sponsored by more than 100 countries, including the African Group and the Least Developed Countries Group.
India on Thursday welcomed the US support. “We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at WTO. The waiver is an important step for enabling rapid scaling up of manufacture and timely availability of affordable covid vaccines and essential medical products,” trade minister Piyush Goyal said.
Speaking at the trade negotiating committee meeting of the WTO on 3 May, Indian envoy Brajendra Navnit said the proposal for a temporary waiver from certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement tops India’s priority list on or before the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial conference from 30 November to 3 December in Geneva.
Former Indian ambassador to WTO Jayant Dasgupta said the positive gesture by the US has to be seen in the context of huge vaccine shortage in the world. “There is a shortage of manufacturing capacity in the hands of the licensed companies. Even if you look at India’s requirement, the two Indian covid vaccine manufacturers are unable to meet demand. Then there is the rest of the developing world, like Africa, which does not have much manufacturing capacity. A TRIPS waiver will enable the production of vaccines by manufacturers who may have the capacity but don’t have the licence. The TRIPS waiver should facilitate both domestic consumption of vaccines as well as exports to other needy countries,” he added.
Leena Menghaney, global IP adviser to MSF Access Campaign, a nongovernment organisation, said it is crucial that this waiver not just apply to vaccines but also cover other medical products for covid, including treatments for people who fall ill and diagnostics to help curb the spread, as originally proposed by India and South Africa seven months ago.
Biswajit Dhar, professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, however, sounded a note of caution. “What will be important is how long the negotiations run, the duration of waiver and conditions ultimately attached. If the negotiating outcome is all based on the best endeavour (of individual countries), then the real purpose will not be served. The licensing agreement and the financial terms which companies will be signing will be most crucial because, without that, there will be no sharing of technology,” he added.
Dasgupta was more hopeful. “I don’t think the negotiations will be long drawn since the US president has weighed in. It also augurs well for the WTO and multilateralism. The US has again started taking the leadership role, and it is leading by example,” he added.
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