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India, South Africa move WTO, want Covid drugs, vaccines freed of IPR, patent rules

The proposal was presented last week at WTO and will require the assent of all 164 member states. The matter will be discussed on 15-16 October.

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New Delhi: India and South Africa have presented an ambitious proposal to the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) that seeks relaxations for intellectual property, patents and other such provisions for coronavirus medicines and vaccines, ThePrint has learnt.

These provisions are laid out under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also known as TRIPS Agreement, that came into effect in January 1995. It is a multilateral agreement on intellectual property.

The proposal was presented jointly by India and South Africa at the WTO, an intergovernmental body overseeing international trade, on 2 October. 

The matter is expected to be taken up for discussion at a meeting of the TRIPS Council, which administers the agreement, on 15-16 October.

The decision to make the joint submission last week was taken with the objective of making Covid drugs and vaccines “affordable as well as accessible” for developing and least-developed countries or LDCs, as they are referred to in trade parlance, top-level government sources said.

The idea, they added, is to ensure that Covid drugs and vaccines, once available in the market, should not come under “unnecessary” regulation that delays their procurement.

Under the joint submission, India has sought removal, or waiver, of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement that pertain to copyright, industrial designs, patents and protection of undisclosed information or trade secrets, for drugs and vaccines aimed at Covid-19.

India and South Africa have also said that the proposed waiver should continue till such time that Covid-19 medicines and vaccines are available “easily and in the mass market”.

WTO norms state that a proposal can only be accepted if all 164 member-countries give their approval.

“This is not going to be an easy task. But it has to be done quickly and cannot be dragged on for months and years because we are talking of a pandemic here and it needs immediate redressal. That is what India is going to pitch for in the upcoming meeting of the TRIPS Council,” said a senior official, who refused to be named.

Also Read: Forget Covid-19 solidarity, there’s a global free-for-all over $597 billion medical trade

‘Hard-nosed diplomacy needed’

Sources said the proposal will be given a considerable push by the Narendra Modi government, with plans to activate the country’s diplomatic channels around the world, particularly with developed players such as the US, UK, Japan, Australia and the European Union.

According to Biswajit Dhar, trade economist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India will need to spearhead an “effective” grouping of countries such as China, Brazil, Mexico, and those in Latin America and Africa, to “put pressure” on richer nations that are able to spend on research and development of drugs and sell it at higher prices in the world markets, thereby creating a monopoly of sorts.

He cited the efforts taken by the Indian government in 2001, when the ‘Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and public health’ came into being that gave a lot of leverage to developing and poorer countries.

“India will have to do some hard-nosed diplomacy here to swing the proposal its way. If India is not able to do, along with South Africa, then it should not also blame the developed countries if they do not accept the proposal,” he added. “If accepted, this proposal will be historic and enable countries to access Covid medicines and vaccines easily, as and when they are available.”

According to Leena Menghaney of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international humanitarian NGO, in India, “When it comes to Covid medicines and vaccines, it cannot be business as usual. This is a pandemic after all and it affects everyone.” 

“So, the application and enforcement of TRIPS provisions cannot be exercised in this case. This is an ambitious proposal and there are indications that developed countries will agree to this because there is no point in doing national legislations in this matter,” she said.

It is crucial, Menghaney added, that “other member governments of the WTO support this as we need to ensure that vaccines, drugs, and other medical tools needed for Covid-19 can be scaled up by countries and their manufacturers without facing protracted negotiations for licences”.

This report has been updated with an additional quote

Also Read: At WTO meet, Delhi objects to EU & Taiwan ‘rush’ to corner India on import tariff hikes


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  1. It costs money to develop a new drug. Someone else should spend it, we should access the elixir, like plucking an apple in Himachal. This is not how Aatma Nirbharta works in the real world.

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