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WTO discusses intellectual property waivers for Covid-19 vaccines

US president Joe Biden’s top trade official, Katherine Tai, said last month that gaping inequities in access to Covid-19 vaccines between developed and developing countries were “completely unacceptable”
Jamey Keaten, AP

Ambassadors from World Trade Organisation (WTO) countries plan to discuss trade rules protecting the technological expertise behind Covid-19 vaccines amid growing pressure on rich nations to relax them to help developing countries fight the pandemic.

The WTO’s General Council is taking up a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections that South Africa and India first proposed in October.

The idea has gained support in the developing world and among some progressive legislators in the west.

Authors of the proposal, which has faced resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical industries, have been revising it in the hopes of making it more palatable.

No consensus – which is required under WTO rules – is expected to emerge from the ambassadors’ two-day meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

Co-sponsors of the waiver idea are shuttling between different diplomatic missions to make their case, according to a Geneva trade official. A deadlock persists, and the opposing sides remain far apart.

Some civil society groups hope the proposal would be approved after US president Joe Biden’s top trade official, Katherine Tai, said last month that gaping inequities in access to Covid-19 vaccines between developed and developing countries were “completely unacceptable”, and that mistakes made in the global response to the HIV pandemic must not be repeated.

The argument, part of a long-running debate about intellectual property protections, centres on lifting patents, copyrights, and protection of industrial design and confidential information to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages.

The aim is to suspend the rules for several years, just long enough to suppress the pandemic.

The issue has become more pressing with a surge in cases in India, the world’s second-most populous country and a key producer of vaccines, including one based on western technology.

Proponents note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolbox and insist there is no better time to use them than during a once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken 3.2 million lives, infected more than 437 million people and devastated economies across the globe.

Opponents say such a waiver would be no panacea. They insist that production of Covid-19 vaccines is complex and simply cannot be ramped up by easing intellectual property, and say lifting protections could hurt future innovation.

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