WTO meeting on India-South Africa proposal for vaccines patent waiver likely to be ‘stormy’


A file image of the WTO building in Geneva, Switzerland | Photo: www.wto.org


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New Delhi: The TRIPS Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will formally discuss, on 8-9 June, the India-South Africa revised joint proposal on waiving intellectual property rights (IP) of Covid vaccines and other medical products. 

This even as the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Japan and others continue to oppose the move.

The Council for TRIPS, commonly called TRIPS Council, is the body legally responsible for administering and monitoring the operation of the TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) — a multilateral pact on the protection of intellectual property.

The revised proposal on IP waiver was submitted by India and South Africa last month at the Geneva-based WTO for all members to now thrash out a consensus-based outcome.

The upcoming TRIPS Council meeting of the WTO is expected to be a “stormy” affair with “minimal chances” of members agreeing to kick-start formal rounds of negotiations, top-level official sources told ThePrint on condition of anonymity. 

This is because, sources said, the revised proposal that was taken up for preliminary discussions at the WTO on 31 May informally witnessed “considerable opposition” from a group of developed countries, while it has found support from 63 WTO members, including the US, China, New Zealand and Ukraine. 

As many as “dozen countries continued to express doubts about the convenience of starting negotiations” even as they asked for more time to “analyse the revised proposal”, a Geneva-based trade official said. 

The EU, the UK, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Brazil and South Korea among others continue to oppose any move to even begin the formal round of talks on the revised proposal.

“Differences continued on the fundamental questions of whether, and to what extent, intellectual property protection represents barriers or challenges to the achievement of the common objective of fighting the pandemic and on the use and improvement of existing TRIPS flexibilities such as vaccines compulsory licensing,” said the Geneva-based trade official. 


Also read: Even if WTO waives patent rights, no country can start making a Covid vaccine immediately


EU ‘not convinced’ on TRIPS Waiver

The EU had submitted a counter-proposal to the WTO last week, enumerating how developing countries can ensure equitable distribution and access to Covid vaccines and other pandemic-related items under the TRIPS pact.

On the issue of waiver, however, it has clearly stated that it is “not convinced” that doing away with the IP protection, albeit temporarily, will give the “best immediate response to reach the objective of the widest and timely distribution of Covid-19 vaccines that the world urgently needs”.

According to the official sources, the EU has been especially opposing the proposal since October 2020 when it was first moved at the WTO. 

“The EU has been most rigid on its stance and does not want any formal negotiations to begin on this issue. On the other hand, Western Europe has been silent on vaccine distribution,” said an official. “They are sitting on excess supplies and have stockpiled reserves while refusing to give any of that to the rest of the world, especially the developing countries.”  

On 9 June, coinciding with the TRIPS Council meeting, the European Parliament will put to vote its position on the matter during its upcoming plenary. 

Negotiations ‘likely’ to begin at next WTO ministerial

 While the EU and others continue to “drag their feet” on the matter, sources said, the co-proponents of the India-South Africa proposal want text-based negotiations to begin without any further delay as the pandemic continues to claim lives and livelihoods. 

“Without a consensus of the whole membership to engage in those discussions, nothing will be done,” said the Geneva-based official, adding that other potential new proposals could be incorporated as the process advances. 

According to another official, the negotiations may begin when the next WTO Ministerial Conference (MC) – the apex decision-making body — takes place.

This year the WTO MC is expected to take place in Geneva from 30 November – 3 December.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)


Also read: WTO talks on Covid patent waivers shouldn’t drag. This isn’t a trade deal, lives are at risk


 

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