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Vaccine inequity can lead to more Covid variants, waive IP rights immediately, India warns WTO

New variant Omicron has put ‘spotlight’ back on the fact that there exists ‘discrimination between vaccinated and unvaccinated people’, India said at a WTO meet in Geneva.

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New Delhi: India has “warned” the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about the potential rise of more ‘Omicron’-like variants if an agreement isn’t immediately reached on waiving intellectual property rights and patent laws on Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics, ThePrint has learnt.

The caution was sent out Monday at an hours-long meeting of the WTO’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in Geneva.

India told the WTO 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, quoting the Indian response on condition of anonymity.

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

It also batted for all developing countries that are suffering due to lack of vaccines as developed countries, especially in the European Union (EU), refuse to distribute them effectively or agree to waiving IPR on Covid vaccines.

The issues were expected to be discussed and there were hopes that an initial agreement would be reached at the next round of the Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the WTO, which got postponed in the wake of travel restrictions due to the emergence of ‘Omicron’. It was scheduled to take place between 30 November and 3 December.

In October 2020, India and South Africa had jointly proposed a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights on Covid-related products to enhance access to vaccines, therapeutics, medicines, diagnostic kits, medical masks, other personal protective equipment, and ventilators, among others.

The proposal was later revised so that a deal could be reached immediately to check the rapid spread of the pandemic. Even the US government supported the proposal to waive IPR on Covid vaccines.

However, the deal is still elusive as several developed countries remain opposed to it.

Also read: With aim to tackle vaccine inequity, African firm tries to replicate Moderna Covid shot

‘Countries haven’t worked towards what could have saved lives’

On Monday, India said a number of countries “have not really worked towards what could have saved millions of lives and made everyone safe”, according to the official quoted above.

“Instead, time has been used in endless consultations and bilateral meetings which have not translated into a meaningful outcome, which is text-based discussion on the TRIPS waiver request,” the official said, adding that India “regretted that what co-sponsors have been arguing all along has come true”.

“We have always stated that the inequity in access to vaccines would not only lead to the rise of variants that may be more transmissible, more lethal and would also circumvent the efficacy of existing vaccines.”

So, New Delhi asked all WTO member countries to start text-based negotiations on an urgent basis. Chad, Tanzania, Maldives, Pakistan, Bolivia, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Egypt took the floor to echo the statement by India and South Africa calling for text-based negotiations.

The US and China have also supported India’s stance as well as the arguments that were put forward by South Africa to start the talks immediately.

The new Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa earlier this month.

It has been designated a “variant of concern” by the WHO. However, the UN health agency has said it “is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person)” or whether infection with the variant “causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta”.

“Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available,” it said on 28 November.  

EU, UK remain opposed to the move

At the Monday meeting, the EU again spoke of a high level of engagement and possible areas of convergence, adding that the right approach after MC12 postponement is to keep exploring grounds where landing zones can be found.

The EU has been opposed to waiving IPR from Covid vaccines and medicines since the beginning of the pandemic.

The European group reiterated its view that it is possible to find a solution on intellectual property that “responds to the need to increase the production and diversification of Covid-19 products, while at the same time maintaining the protection required for incentivising technology transfer and investment in research and innovation”.

Similarly, the UK and Switzerland said intellectual property protection will also be instrumental to address the new coronavirus variants and future pandemics.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: Omicron variant could have emerged from AIDS patient with prolonged Covid, scientists suspect


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