U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position in a statement Wednesday, amid World Trade Organization negotiations to relax global trade rules to allow more countries to produce more food. life-saving vaccines. “The administration strongly believes in the protection of intellectual property, but in the service of ending this pandemic, it supports the lifting of these protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” Tai said.
But she warned that it would take time to reach the global “consensus” required to waive protections under WTO rules, and U.S. officials said that would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
‘It’s a global health crisis’
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary action,” Tai said. “The Administration’s goal is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. “
Tai’s announcement comes hours after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke at a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries who were arguing over the issue, but agreed on the need for wider access to COVID-19 treatments, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.
The WTO General Council – made up of ambassadors – addressed the crucial issue of a temporary waiver for the protection of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India had offered for the first time in October. The idea has gained support from the developing world and some progressive lawmakers in the West.
Rockwell said a WTO intellectual property panel was set to take up the waiver proposal at a “provisional” meeting later this month, ahead of a formal June 8-9 meeting. .
No consensus expected immediately
No consensus – required by WTO rules – was to emerge from the two-day meeting of ambassadors on Wednesday and Thursday. But Rockwell pointed out a change in tone after months of wrangling.
“I would say that the discussion was much more constructive, pragmatic. She was less emotional and less singled out than she had been in the past, ”said Rockwell, citing an upsurge in cases in places like India.
“I think that feeling of everyone-to-be-together was expressed in a way that I hadn’t heard until now. “
The authors of the proposal, which met resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, revised it in the hope of making it more acceptable.
Okonjo-Iweala, in remarks posted on the WTO website, said it was incumbent on us “to act quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to start and engage in meaningful negotiations. on texts ”.
“I have a firm belief that once we can sit down with a real text in front of us, we will find a pragmatic way forward,” which is “acceptable to all parties,” she said. .
Some opposition to deal with
The co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between the various diplomatic missions to assert their point of view, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. A stalemate persists and the opposing sides remain very distant, the official said.
The argument, part of a long-standing debate over intellectual property protections, focuses on lifting patents, copyrights, and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand production and deployment of vaccines in the event of a supply shortage. The goal is to put the rules on hold for several years, just long enough to beat the pandemic.
The issue has become more urgent with an increase in cases in India, the second most populous country in the world and a key producer of vaccines – including one for COVID-19 which relies on technology from the University of Oxford and the Anglo-pharmaceutical maker. -Swedish AstraZeneca.
Supporters, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolkit and insist that there is no better time to use them only during the once-in-a-century pandemic that claimed 3.2 million lives and further infected over 437 million people and devastated economies.
More than 100 countries voted in favor of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of the United States Congress – all Democrats – sent Biden a letter last month asking him to support the waiver.
Opponents say a waiver would not be a panacea. They insist that the production of coronavirus vaccines is complex and simply cannot be accelerated by facilitating intellectual property, and claim that lifting protections could hinder future innovation.