WTO members agree to talks on patent waiver for Covid drugs, vaccines

NEW DELHI: In a significant breakthrough, members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Wednesday agreed to launch discussions on patent waiver for Covid-related vaccines, drugs and devices, amid indications that the talks will be fast-tracked.
At a meeting of a key WTO panel looking into the issue, India suggested detailed deliberations kick-off by next week, with an intent to clinch a deal by the end of July, sources said.
Although the European Union, the UK and Switzerland reiterated their opposition, they agreed to join text-based talks, for which a draft has been shared.
Brazil, Australia, Canada and several other naysayers agreed to join the discussions to work out how the waiver of intellectual property rights will be implemented and the timeframe for which the flexibility will be in place.
There is growing support from countries to ensure that vaccines and therapies, sources familiar with the deliberations said.
Norwegian ambassador to the WTO Dagfinn Sørli, who chairs the TRIPS Council that will work out the details, recognised the persisting differences, although the opposition is now limited to a handful of countries.
He suggested that a report be submitted to trade ministers from WTO countries who will meet next month, setting an informal deadline of sorts.
Since WTO is driven by consensus, even one of the 164 member countries can block a decision. The other concern is the coverage of the waiver – whether it will include just vaccines or it will extend to medicines, therapies and devices, along with raw material and inputs, as well as technology, to contain and treat the deadly Coronavirus.
While some countries viewed a three-year suspension to be too long, the Indian delegation underlined it was temporary and said that the proponents, including South Africa and other developing and poor countries, have no intention to continue the waiver for an indefinite period or denying benefits to patent holders.
In fact, the US, which agreed to talks recently, triggering a mood swing across the globe, also suggested steps to speed up a move towards consensus and proposed that countries could focus on steps that may be needed to address the supply and distribution of vaccines.
India and South Africa had first moved the proposal in October but had little traction from the developed countries. But once the US came on board, as did some others, a detailed plan was submitted late last month, which now be the basis for negotiations.
The proponents, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Argentina and the others, believe that waiver of patents and other intellectual property rights along with access to raw material and technology will help boost production of drugs and vaccines given that spare capacity is available.
The current pace of production is seen to be too slow and is unlikely to result in a significant part of the global population being inoculated quickly.
These countries have argued that without adequate vaccination the global economy cannot be back on track and will impact the lives and livelihood of millions.

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