New Delhi: Nations around the world might be queuing up to offer assistance to India as it battles a devastating Covid-19 wave, but the scene playing out at the World Trade Organization (WTO) contrasts significantly.
On Thursday, the WTO met at its Geneva headquarters informally to discuss India and South Africa’s proposal to waive stringent intellectual property and patents rights on Covid vaccines.
However, WTO member — the US, the UK, the EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and Switzerland — continued their resistance to the move, sources present in the meeting told ThePrint.
The proposal, which was first presented in October 2020, has failed to make much headway due to stiff opposition from the US and Europe.
During the informal meeting of the TRIPS Council, where the matter was discussed among all member countries, the European Union (EU) said “undermining or upending intellectual property rights is a no-go as they represent a major contribution to expanding production of COVID-19 vaccines”.
While the EU, along with the UK and Switzerland, said it is ready to “engage in further discussions”, it declined support to a complete waiver.
India at the meeting “warned” of the perils of poor access to vaccines in large parts of the world, the sources quoted New Delhi as saying.
“Going by current trends, vast pockets of the human population will remain beyond the reach of a vaccine for the foreseeable future, giving the virus plenty of room to continue circulating and mutating,” it was further quoted.
Offer for help
The opposition at the WTO came even as European countries showed solidarity with India amid the record surge of the pandemic in the country.
On Friday, EU President Charles Michel said in a tweet that the region “stands in solidarity with Indian people amidst resurgent #COVID19 pandemic. The fight against the virus is a common fight”.
The fight against the virus is a common fight.
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) April 23, 2021
He also said the region will discuss its “support and cooperation” at the upcoming EU-India Summit that will take place virtually on 8 May. Earlier Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meant to travel to Portugal to hold the summit.
Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also held a meeting with Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission.
“Appreciated the support offered by EU on Covid challenges currently faced by India. Confident that EU will help strengthen our capabilities at this critical juncture,” Jaishankar said in a tweet Friday.
Detailed discussions on the preparation for the virtual India-EU Summit. pic.twitter.com/gKT9KA5yZG
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 23, 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron has also extended his support. “France is with you in this struggle, which spares no one. We stand ready to provide our support,” Macron said.
US, Japan, Canada also oppose the move
At the meeting Thursday, however, other developed countries that form the core WTO membership — the US, Japan and Canada — refused to support the waiver proposal even as Covid deaths continue to soar in India while it also faces shortage of vaccines and oxygen.
Refusing to support a complete waiver of intellectual property rights (IPR) and patents on Covid vaccines and medicines, the US said it will help in strengthening the trilateral cooperation between the WTO, World Intellectual Property Organisation and World Health Organization to streamline the IPR requirements and other regulatory issues that can delay vaccine distribution.
Japan, Australia and Canada, among others, took a similar stance, batting for more talks and other alternatives, sources said.
Under the proposal, India and South Africa have sought temporary relaxations for intellectual property, patents and other such provisions laid out under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also known as TRIPS Agreement of the WTO.
So far, 58 countries have co-sponsored the proposal, including Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group and Maldives.
On Friday, India recorded a global record single-day tally of 3.32 lakh Covid-19 cases. It also saw 2,263 fatalities.
Need for waiver
In a statement on this issue Wednesday, Dr Maria Guevara, international medical secretary, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said, “Several potentially promising medicines for COVID-19 prevention and treatment are currently in clinical trials, and if proven effective, could be a critical part of the ongoing response to the pandemic, especially in light of the slow and unequal global vaccine rollout and the emergence of virus variants.”
She said, “However, even during the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations continue to maintain their standard practice of rigid control over intellectual property rights, and MSF’s analysis shows that they have filed patent claims over the past year for several medicines that are under development for COVID-19 treatment.”
Guevara added, “The waiver, if adopted, could provide countries with new options to address legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede production and supply of COVID-19 medical products in advance, rather than waiting for barriers to hit and then scramble for actions.”