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No consensus in WTO after India proposes virtual ministers’ meet on Covid vaccine IPR waiver

Ministerial conference was postponed in November due to Omicron variant emerging. India & South Africa had proposed intellectual property rights waiver for Covid vaccines in 2020.

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New Delhi: The General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is its highest decision-making body, failed to reach a consensus Monday on India’s proposal to hold a pending ministerial conference virtually.

On 23 December, India had sent a letter to the General Council, urging for a virtual ministerial meeting, in order to conclude discussions on a proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) rights on Covid-19-related vaccines — a proposal made jointly by India and South Africa in 2020.

The conference was supposed to take place in-person on 26 November last year, but got postponed due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Official sources told ThePrint that India is going to continue pushing for the proposal, keeping in mind the rising number of Covid cases in India and around the world. The sources added that the more the ministerial conference is delayed, countries that oppose the move to waive IP on Covid vaccines will continue to sit on the proposal.

The ministerial conference, which is attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the WTO’s 164 member countries, takes the final call on decisions reached in the multilateral trade body. The ministerial conference takes place at least once every two years.

On Monday, WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called for urgent action towards a comprehensive outcome on pandemic response among all 164 members.

“More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our Twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated,” the WTO DG said Monday, while taking up India’s proposal to hold the conference virtually.

“We at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against Covid-19,” she added.

A source in the WTO told ThePrint that “no consensus was reached on the if and when of a virtual ministerial gathering” to address the WTO response to the pandemic.

Also read: Pfizer begins making hybrid Covid vaccine that targets Omicron & original virus

Push for IPR waiver

WTO members have largely commended India’s initiative on IP rights waiver, but several delegations indicated more work needs to be done in Geneva in various WTO bodies before ministers can engage in a meaningful manner, the WTO source said.

However, Ambassador Dacio Castillo, the General Council chair,  will continue to hold consultations with members on the Indian proposal to hold the ministerial conference virtually in the coming weeks.

In November last year, when the WTO announced the postponement of the ministerial conference, India had warned about the emergence of more ‘Omicron’-like variants, if an agreement is not immediately reached on waiving intellectual property rights and patent laws on Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

The Geneva-headquartered WTO’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) had been discussing the joint proposal submitted by India and South Africa to waive IP rules on Covid vaccines since October 2020.

India told the WTO in November last year that inequity in access to vaccines would lead to the “rise of variants that may be more transmissible” as it pushed for “an immediate adoption of the proposal to waive IPR and patents on Covid vaccines”, a Geneva-based trade official said on condition of anonymity, quoting the Indian response.

New Delhi had also said that the new Covid variant has put the “spotlight” back on the fact that there exists “discrimination between vaccinated and unvaccinated people”.

The European Union and the UK continue to oppose the move to waive IPR from Covid vaccines and medicines.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: India’s looking at Corbevax, others. World also needs to move beyond mRNA vaccines


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