WTO debate on open access to COVID-19 vaccines intensifies, new DG proposes ‘interim solution’

March 3, 2021: The majority of more than 30 delegations speaking in the World Trade Organisation General Council on March 1, 2021, were in favour of the proposed suspension of rules under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, for the COVID-19 pandemic period, according to a WTO official familiar with the proceedings.

Notably, the US and European Union – two of the largest members that have been in opposition – chose not speak on the subject, according to Inside US Trade. Both are facing domestic pressure from advocacy groups and some lawmakers to back the waiver. Australia has so far opposed the suspension proposal.

The General Council heard an oral report from the TRIPS Council chair who said members have not been able to reach consensus, including on moving to text-based discussions, and would continue their deliberations.

Incoming WTO Director-General, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has not supported the waiver, but proposed an “interim solution” while the debate continues. Using her knowledge as former Chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, she noted “serious supply scarcity” and said COVAX, the World Health Organisation initiative aimed at providing vaccines to poorer countries, is continuously being outbid by some countries. She said the WTO should work with companies to license more production.

“The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses. This is just very difficult, so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries,” she said. “We must get them to work with us on know-how and technology transfer now.”

She also called for a "dialogue and information exchange between us and representatives of manufacturers associations from developing and developed countries.”

COVAX is a voluntary scheme to provide low-cost vaccines to poor countries. It is failing because pharmaceutical companies are determined to hold on to their 20-year patents on medicines and medical devices. GAVI, which was initiated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supports the patent system and works to obtain low-cost vaccines by subsiding companies to supply at prices poor countries simply cannot afford to pay.

The suspension of WTO intellectual property rules in relation to the pandemic, proposed by South Africa and India, is a way to cut through the impasse, and allow governments to directly licence more vaccine manufacture, rather than bargain case-by-case with pharmaceutical companies.

The WTO TRIPS Council – all 164 WTO Members States – will debate the suspension proposal on March 10-11, 2021. South Africa wants to get a decision using a provision for a 75 per cent majority vote, rather than the so-far failed consensus.