WTO plans more meetings on waiving vaccine monopolies as Omicron rages and civil society condemns delay

January 11, 2022: The World Trade Organisation General Council met virtually on January 10. This was a response to India’s recent proposal to hold an urgent virtual Ministerial Conference on the WTO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a proposed temporary waiver of WTO intellectual property rules on vaccine monopolies, which would enable production of affordable vaccines in low-income countries.

A temporary waiver on WTO monopoly rules would address the global vaccine injustice of vaccination rates of less than 10% in low-countries compared up to 90% in countries like Australia. A few pharmaceutical companies control production and price, with rich countries first in line for third booster doses while millions in low income countries have not received one dose.

WTO Director June Okonjo-Iweala called for urgent action towards a comprehensive WTO outcome on pandemic response. "More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our Twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated. We at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against COVID-19.”

The waiver is supported by the World Health Organisation and over 100 WTO member governments, but is still being blocked by the EU, (led by Germany) the UK and Switzerland which have large pharmaceutical industries. The UK published a statement on December  2021 entrenching its position, which was condemned by public health and civil society groups . The Irish Prime Minister has called on the EU to support the waiver, as has the EU Parliament and other EU governments.

WTO General Council Chair Ambassador Castillo said he would continue to hold consultations with members on the Indian proposal, underlining "the urgency and importance of reaching a meaningful outcome." A common WTO response to COVID-19 "remains an urgent priority for the membership," he said.