WTO members agree to discuss proposal to waive patents on COVID-19 technologies 

The waiver would increase access to technologies crucial to fighting the pandemic

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Wednesday 09 June 2021
The WTO TRIPS Conference in Geneva. Photo: @wto / Twitter
The WTO TRIPS Conference in Geneva. Photo: @wto / Twitter The WTO TRIPS Conference in Geneva. Photo: @wto / Twitter

Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) June 9, 2021, agreed to engage in a text-based process to provide an urgent response to patents on products needed to fight the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at the body’s TRIPS Council meeting in Geneva. 

The WTO members discussed whether technologies such as diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices and personal protective equipment, their materials or components as well as methods and means of manufacture can be made open for all for three years from the date of the decision on the matter. 

Some 48 statements were made by the members over June 8 and 9. Many reiterated their issues with the proposal. But they agreed for text-based negotiations of the revised Intellectual Property (IP) waiver proposal by South Africa and India. 

The text-based negotiation means that countries will negotiate and work on the text of the proposal to reach an agreement on its scope, duration and other language as necessary to implement the waiver. 

South Africa explained the main points of the revised proposal at the TRIPS council meeting. These stress the existence of virus mutations and new variants which are more transmittable and have significant implications in the erosion of public health measures.

India too emphasised that the text reflected the balance between commercial interests of IP rights holders and public health at large. It said this was not an ideological debate for the co-proponents. We are not against incentives for research, development and innovation, but at the same time we acknowledge the importance of public health during a pandemic, India said.

The United States agreed that extraordinary circumstances called for extraordinary measures. While believing strongly in IP protections, the US said necessary steps must be taken to accelerate the manufacturing and equitable distribution of vaccines. The WTO must show that it can step up in a global crisis and act efficiently to improve the lives of ordinary people. We must all come together to find a solution expeditiously, especially as the pandemic continues to spread with new variants, the US delegate said.

The European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and South Korea are opposed to the waiver. However, the EU agreed that IP rights should not stand in the way of access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. 

A new proposal was submitted by the EU at this meeting. This document, which was leaked June 4, suggests that the EU is not convinced that the waiver is the right solution to increased access to vaccines and therapeutics. Their solution to the pandemic problem focuses on use of compulsory licensing and other TRIPS flexibilities instead of a waiver. The proposal also focuses mostly on vaccines and therapeutics instead of covering all COVID-19 medical tools technologies.  

Experts point out that the EU proposal only applies to patent barriers and does not address IP barriers such as trade secrets, industrial designs and copyright protections. Relying on the voluntary actions of pharmaceutical corporations who hold exclusive rights is not an ideal solution in a global pandemic.

The TRIPS waiver was proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 and is now co-sponsored by 63 countries and supported by more than 100 countries. On May 5, 2021, the United States government announced partial support for the waiver proposal. 

The chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, expressed hope that in continuing the urgent and focused discussion on the IP issues relevant to the pandemic, members can soon agree on pragmatic solutions to any problems that can directly improve the response to COVID-19. 

The outcome of this TRIPS Council meeting will be reported to the WTO General Council July 21-22, 2021. The chair indicated he will consult with members as a matter of urgency on how the process can be arranged in practical terms. If the negotiations are concluded, they would be submitted at the WTO Ministerial Conference in November 2021. 

Meanwhile, a petition has been submitted to the WTO, calling for universal access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines. The petition, signed by over 2.7 million people and coordinated by Avaaz, an online activist network, was submitted on June 7, 2021, before the meeting.

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