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WTO to again discuss Covid vaccine IPR waiver proposal by India, South Africa on Thursday

Under the proposal, India and South Africa have sought temporary relaxations for IP, patents and other such provisions laid out under the TRIPS Agreement of the WTO.

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New Delhi: India and South Africa’s proposal to temporarily waive the intellectual property and patent rights on Covid vaccines will be discussed at yet another round of informal meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s TRIPS Council Thursday, even as the US continues to oppose the move.

The meeting will take place at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, according to the global trade body.

New Delhi has activated all its diplomatic channels to have the proposal approved even as developed countries continue to resist the move that is aimed at making access to Covid vaccine to poorer countries easier, sources told ThePrint.

India is going to once again push for the adoption of the proposal along with South Africa and other developing countries, including China and Pakistan, sources said.

The proposal to temporarily waive IPR and patent laws from Covid vaccines, medical devices and protective kits was jointly floated by India and South Africa at the WTO in Geneva on 2 October 2020, to make these items easily accessible to all countries.

Under the proposal, India and South Africa have sought temporary relaxations for IP, 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.

Sources added that considering the alarming rise in Covid cases in India amid the rampaging second wave, it is critical for the developed world to extend their cooperation for the proposal.

The move comes after a virtual meeting on this issue was called upon by the new WTO Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on 14 April to address trade-related obstacles to the scale-up of Covid vaccine production.

“This is a problem of the global commons, and we have to solve it together… We agree that it’s not acceptable for people and countries to have to wait indefinitely for vaccines. We do not want to repeat experiences of the past,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala also said that she expected all WTO member countries to “advance negotiations” in the TRIPS Council on the waiver proposal and incentives for research and innovation.

Also read: New human challenge trial in UK to study immune response that can prevent Covid reinfection

US yet to support the proposal

The meeting called by the WTO DG was also attended by the US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai, India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal as well as South African Trade Minister Ebrahim Patel, among others.

“This is not just a challenge for governments. This challenge applies equally to the industry responsible for developing and manufacturing the vaccines. There is still a gaping divide between developed and developing countries when it comes to access to medicines,” the USTR had said.

She added, “We saw this during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where various policies and actions constrained access to medicines, contributing to unnecessary deaths and suffering. We must learn from, and not repeat, the tragedies and mistakes of the past.”

However, the USTR steered clear from making any commitment to supporting the waiver proposal on behalf of the Joe Biden administration.

“While the USTR is yet to clarify its position on the TRIPS waiver negotiations under the new administration, it has recognised the problem and the institution of the WTO and its rules that have not adapted to a changed world. Countries need to have new legal options to address legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of medical products in advance, as we brace for future challenges,” Leena Menghaney, global IP adviser to Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Access Campaign, told ThePrint.

Menghaney, who has been involved in the talks since the proposal was floated last year, added, “Despite the unprecedented speed of vaccine development and initial scale-up of manufacturing capacity, we are facing a scarcity issue in the here and now, as we witness inevitable manufacturing constraints, compounded by the fact, that some countries have secured many more doses than is needed to vaccinate their whole populations through bilateral deals.”

Prabhash Ranjan, senior assistant professor at the Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAU) said in a report, “An IP waiver alone cannot accomplish such task. Increasing the production of vaccines and ensuring their equitable access would also require building the institutional capacity in several countries, overcoming systemic bottlenecks, and undertaking the necessary reforms in the administrative machinery and the legal framework.”

He added, “Nonetheless, a TRIPS waiver could be an important step in scaling up the production of the vaccines.”

Earlier this month, Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive officer of India’s leading vaccine maker Serum Institute of India (SII) had informed the WHO that the US is blocking the export of certain key items, including bags and filters, thereby impeding the production of Covid vaccines.

SII is the licensee to produce Covid vaccines made by AstraZeneca Plc and Novavax Inc.

“Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details,” Poonawalla said in a tweet.

Also read: At 5.2 million infections, global Covid-19 cases hit record-high since start of pandemic


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