Twist in TRIPS waiver negotiations raises eyebrows

A small group of WTO members has been discussing a watered-down version of the TRIPS waiver, which would leave most of the Global South’s production capacities unused

February 19, 2022 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Photo: MSF Access

Not long before the beginning of the EU-African Union Summit on February 17, Geneva Health Files reported on a small group of WTO members discussing a limited application of the TRIPS waiver under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Among other things, this small group discussed an interpretation of the TRIPS waiver that could exclude India and China, which would significantly slow down the mobilization of the world’s production capacities for Covid-19 medical products.This would effectively hinder the effort to make vaccines, tests, and medicines available everywhere. It is understood that this proposal has been rejected by India, but there is no clear agreement yet on the scope of geographical limitation of the proposed waiver.

According to Priti Patnaik, reporter and founder, Geneva Health Files, it is not unusual for WTO members to meet in small groups before going back to the wider membership. However, in this case, the meetings between the US, the EU, India and South Africa have been coordinated by the WTO Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, making the meetings a part of the WTO processes.

“The meetings between the US, the EU, India and South Africa have been criticized by other WTO members, including notably the UK and Switzerland, who were excluded from the conversations,” said Patnaik.

Their reaction doesn’t come as a surprise given that both countries have been among the most steadfast opponents of the waiver proposal since it was tabled at WTO in October 2020 by India and South Africa. But what remains unclear is whether a TRIPS waiver with such geographical limitations would be acceptable for more than 100 members of the WTO, who for the past year and half have been advocating for a full application of the waiver on Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics products. “The understanding always was SA and India would take back the results of these discussions to the other co-sponsors of the waiver proposal,” said Patnaik.

For the time being, however, the opinion of the co-sponsors is not known. As observers in Geneva point out, not even China’s own position is known to us at this point. It is important to keep this in mind, because the solution coming out of this process will have to be acceptable to other co-sponsors, as well as other WTO members, if it is to be passed.

The European strategy towards Africa

If a version of the TRIPS waiver which doesn’t apply to China and India was passed, the benefits would be severely limited. While it could help with access to vaccines in Africa, large portions of the planet would remain in the same position as today, dependent on Big Pharma companies and the charity of rich countries.

The willingness of the rich members of the working group, especially the EU, to limit the chances offered by the waiver to Africa should also be approached taking into consideration other recent attempts to extend its influence over the region under the guise of developing regional capacities. This is the case with European efforts to push for the building of an African Medicines Agency perfectly fitting the EU’s vision of safe medicines, which can essentially be reduced to patented drugs rather than generics.

Although it is not yet known how the discussions between India, South Africa, the EU and the US will influence the overall conversation on pandemic response at the WTO, which will meet for another General Council meeting on February 23, chaired by a new ambassador – Didier Chambovey from Switzerland – representatives from the Global South continue to make use of all platforms at their disposal to reaffirm their commitment to securing the TRIPS waiver.

Speaking to journalists before the opening of the European Union-African Union (EU-AU) Summit, Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, ensured that the TRIPS waiver would be on the summit’s agenda. His comments indicated that the African Union was not yet convinced by the approach to vaccine equity as imagined by the EU.

Ramaphosa also stated, “Governments that are serious about vaccine access for all need to approve the TRIPS waiver. We are facing a global pandemic, all we ask is that the waiver be done, for a set period, to enable all countries to have access to vaccines.”

The dedication to the TRIPS waiver expressed by African delegates was shared and amplified by civil society organizations who addressed an open letter to the WTO Director General, urging the organization to finally give the TRIPS waiver, and thus millions of people around the world, a chance. “The time for excuses is over. Billions of people around the world are waiting for the WTO to deliver a bold outcome on the TRIPS waiver proposal that will effectively and concretely contribute to enabling production in and expanding supply options towards realizing equitable access which is the key to socio-economic recovery,” stated the 202 signatories of the letter.

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