The Biden administration‘s backing for talks on Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibility for vaccines at WTO has prodded others such as the European Union, a key opponent, out of its waiver hesitancy, but trade negotiators are treading with caution.
The move, first proposed by India and South Africa in October, is seen to be critical to ramp up and democratise Covid-19 vaccine and drug production and increase access in developing and poor countries. For months, there was a stalemate as the proposal was opposed by developed countries.
“The EU is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday, hours after a statement from US trade representative Katherine Tai, who supported negotiations on the issue.
“And that’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for covered vaccines could help achieve that objective,” she told an online conference, weeks after the trading bloc had told WTO members that this was a no-go area.
The Indian government appeared pleased with the progress after months of deadlock. “We welcome US government supporting this initiative and joining 120 other countries working towards affordable Covid-19 vaccines,” commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal said on Twitter.
Experience shows that numbers can be deceptive as several countries are known to switch sides at the last moment on crucial issues at WTO, where decisions are taken unanimously. Yet, the severity of the pandemic and the realisation that even rich countries with vaccinated populations will remain vulnerable unless a big chunk of the global population has been inoculated against the virus has led the US and EU to drop their resistance, producing a ray of hope of about the possibility of a consensus.
“We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly,” New Delhi said in a statement.
For now, Indian negotiators are keeping their fingers crossed, waiting to see how the other traditional naysayers – Switzerland, the UK, Japan, Canada and Brazil – react, and acknowledge that the statements from the US and the EU only signal a start of some tough negotiations in Geneva over the coming weeks.
Significantly, the dilution of US’s traditional resistance, following intense pressure from civil society, was limited to talks on vaccines, while India and South Africa’s joint proposal at WTO had sought to extend the flexibility to Covid-19 related medicines as well. Trade experts also caution that the waiver, if the WTO membership agrees, will be limited to the final product while the challenge of sourcing inputs, many of them patent-protected, will also have to be overcome even if patents on the vaccines are waived.
“Time is of essence. It is important to see how quickly we can start negotiations and how soon a decision is reached. We also need to ensure that the final decision is such that it benefits the developing and poor countries, including those without manufacturing facility,” said Biswajit Dhar, a professor at JNU.
Abhijit Das, who heads the Centre for WTO studies, too cautioned against immediate celebrations. “This is a bold and positive step from the US but a big battle lies ahead when detailed negotiations start on the scope and duration of the waiver.”
India is seen as a major potential beneficiary because of the infrastructure and experience it has in vaccine production. However, along with South Africa, it is coordinating its moves with other countries to work out a comprehensive proposal which will seek patent holiday for vaccines as well as their components.
As could be expected, with the prospect of loss of billions of dollars facing them, initial statements from the pharma lobby were not welcoming. “…as we have consistently stated, a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem. Waiving patents of Covid-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption; while distracting from addressing the real challenges in scaling up production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines globally,” Geneva-based pharma lobby group IFPMA said in a statement.
JNU’s Dhar emphasised that the pharma companies are the ones who really need to come on board given that they own the intellectual property.