WTO starts talks for text to enable global access to COVID-19 vaccines, with EU opposing

June 10, 2021: Médecins sans Frontières has welcomed the opening of text-based negotiation at the World Trade Organisation as a major breakthrough for South Africa, India and 63 sponsoring low- and middle-income countries, supported by over 100 countries in total. The revised proposal seeks suspension of patent monopoly rights for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment during the pandemic. But there is major opposition to the proposals at the WTO meeting.

Leena Menghaney, Global Intellectual Property Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign, said, “After eight months of stalling, MSF welcomes the start of the negotiations and governments must do everything in their power to make sure that the ‘TRIPS waiver’ is not restricted to vaccines and has the best chance to save as many lives as possible throughout this pandemic. In addition to vaccines, the world urgently needs access to newer therapeutics and other health technologies to reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths in this pandemic.”

The South African representative reminded the WTO meeting that they had put forward a revised text on May 31, 2021. “We have been in discussions for eight months now, given the time sensitivity of the situation, we cannot allow our discussion to go beyond July 2021 without severe consequences not only for the WTO but for the world at large….

“The revised text … [focuses] on ‘health products and technologies’, noting that the prevention, treatment or containment of COVID-19 involves a range of products and technologies including diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices and personal protective equipment”.

The revised proposal is for the waiver to be for at least three years, and for it to end through a decision of the WTO General Council

The European Union has put forward a counter proposal, which does not significantly change current rules and risks prolonging negotiations and the pandemic.

The US has supported a waiver for vaccines. The US representative said, “The United States believes strongly in intellectual property protections. But we must do what is necessary to accelerate manufacturing and equitable distribution of vaccines. … While we are still reviewing the revised proposal, our initial reaction is that it is a relatively modest change. …

“In our view, the most expeditious pathway toward consensus would be to focus our efforts on what actions might be needed to address the supply and distribution of vaccines specifically.

“We would welcome hearing whether there is consensus to have open and honest conversations about what can be done in this space. We continue to encourage others to step forward with something to which they can say yes”.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted support for waiving patents for vaccines to help end the coronavirus pandemic, putting France on a collision course with the UK and Germany ahead of the G7 summit in England.

Australia remains one of only twelve countries refusing to support the waiver. Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O’Neil spoke on ABC TV on June 7 (see 54.45) urging the Morrison government to support the waiver after over 50,000 Australians signed petitions supporting the waiver.

The next WTO General Council meeting is scheduled for 21-22 July.