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WTO meet today could take up India-South Africa proposal to waive IP rights on Covid vaccines

As India reels under a massive second wave of Covid, US President Joe Biden has come under pressure domestically to support the move.

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New Delhi: The General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is likely to take up Wednesday the matter on waiving intellectual property and patents rights on Covid vaccines, a proposal moved by India and South Africa.

The General Council, the highest decision-making body in the WTO, is meeting on 5-6 May. It will be deliberating on many important matters, and the temporary waiver on Covid vaccines is one of them, a Geneva trade official, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.

The proposal to waive IPR and patent rights from Covid vaccines was jointly floated by India and South Africa in October 2020. It has been discussion since then due to stiff opposition from some of the WTO members like the US, EU, Japan, Canada and Australia among others.

The US has been open to discuss the matter at length at the WTO and has participated in all the meetings on this matter. However, it has opposed the move and instead suggested ways to facilitate the transfer of manufacturing know-how and capacity necessary to produce more Covid vaccines, sources told ThePrint.

But the proposal has found a number of co-sponsors in Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group, Maldives, Fiji and Namibia, among others.

The issue has been also regularly discussed at the meeting of the TRIPS Council of the WTO both formally and informally as the issue falls directly under its purview.

During his phone-call with US President Joe Biden last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised the matter urging him “to support India’s initiative at the WTO for a relaxation in the norms of the Agreement on TRIPS to ensure quick and affordable access to vaccines and medicines for developing countries”.

Taranjit Sandhu, Indian Ambassador to the US, has also been discussing the matter with senior Biden administration officials in Washington.

Also read: Not just NZ & Philippines, diplomats of many more countries hit by O2, beds, vaccine crises

Pressure on Biden

Biden has come under considerable pressure domestically to support India and South Africa’s proposal, which also has support from many other developing and least-developed countries that cannot afford to access vaccines at a higher cost.

Ten Democratic Senators including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Sherrod Brown have urged Biden “to support the adoption of this temporary waiver; doing so will help to ensure the most effective and efficient response to this once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic”.

During a White House briefing Tuesday, when asked about the final US decision to waive patents on vaccines, Biden said, “Well, we’re going to decide that as we go along. I haven’t made that decision yet.”

He added, “I spoke to Prime Minister Modi. What he needs most is he needs the material and the parts to be able to have his machines that can make the vaccine work. We’re sending them that. We’re sending them oxygen. We’re sending them a lot of the precursors. So, we’re doing a lot for India.”

‘Need to allow freedom to develop’

Leena Menghaney, Global IP advisor, MSF Access Campaign, told ThePrint that India is seeing a “frightening rise” in Covid cases and deaths with its healthcare system in cities like Delhi and states like Uttar Pradesh “reaching breaking point”.

“Numbers have never been so large anywhere in the world before. Vaccines to protect the vulnerable and medical supplies including drugs have been in short supply. It’s clear that pharmaceutical industry’s bilateral licensing model does not expand the base of manufacturing sufficiently of people in India and the developing world,” she said.

“We need to allow scientists and manufacturers the greatest freedom to operate to develop and manufacture the vaccines and medicines that are urgently needed. In this hour of a full blown health emergency MSF appeals to Norway, US, UK, Canada, EU and Japan to stop stalling the proposal to waive of all intellectual property restrictions that may be faced in expanding the number of manufacturers to meet the needs of the developing world,” she added.

Meanwhile, last month amid the raging pandemic, the US Trade Representative (USTR) in its annual ‘Special 301 Report’ for 2021 came down heavily on India and China for a weak IPR and patents regime and not having adequate IP enforcement.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: India approaches US firms seeking investment in country’s pharmaceutical, medical sector


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