Science has delivered, will the WTO deliver? TRIPS waiver proposal from India, South Africa, and other members

#WTO; #IntellectualPropertyRights; #TRIPS; #IMF; #Covid19Pandemic;

India, South Africa, and eight other countries have been calling the World Trade Organization (WTO) with a proposal to exempt member countries from enforcing some patents, and other Intellectual Property (IP) rights under the organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as TRIPS, for a limited period of time to ensure Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) to facilitate rapid scaling- up of manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, said Brajendra Navnit, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to WTO.

The proposal has been backed by various international organizations, multilateral agencies, and global civil society and supported by a large proportion of the WTO membership, while only a few members have raised concerns about the proposal.​

Unprecedented times call for unorthodox measures. We saw this in the efficacy of strict lockdowns for a limited period, as a policy intervention, in curtailing the spread of the pandemic.

“…However, the risk of worse growth outcomes than projected remains sizable. If the virus resurges, progress on treatments and vaccines is slower than anticipated, or countries’ access to them remains unequal, economic activity could be lower than expected, with renewed social distancing and tighter lockdowns”, ​International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its October 2020 edition of World Economic Outlook states.

But the situation appears to be grimmer than predicted, said Navnit as already there has been a loss of 7 percent of economic output from the baseline scenario projected in 2019 which translates to a loss of more than USD 6 trillion of global GDP.

Navnit added that even a 1 percent improvement in global GDP from the baseline scenario will add more than USD 800 billion in global output.

Timely and affordable access to the emergence of successful vaccines and treatments will be a big confidence booster for demand revival in the economy but the fundamental question is whether there will be enough Covid-19 vaccines to go around.

“As things stand, even the most optimistic scenarios today cannot assure access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics for the majority of the population, in rich as well as poor countries, by the end of 2021. All the members of the WTO have agreed on one account that there is an urgent need to scale-up the manufacturing capacity for vaccines and therapeutics to meet the massive global needs. The TRIPS Waiver Proposal seeks to fulfill this need by ensuring that IP barriers do not come in the way of such scaling up of manufacturing capacity,” said Navnit.

Why existing flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement are not enough

The inadequacy of the existing flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement is due to the fact that these were not designed keeping pandemics in mind. The practice of issuing compulsory on a country by country, case by case, and product by product basis, where every jurisdiction with an IP regime would have to issue separate compulsory licenses, results in the collaboration among countries to be extremely onerous.

“While we encourage the use of TRIPS flexibilities, the same is time-consuming and cumbersome to implement. Hence, only their use cannot ensure timely access to affordable vaccines and treatments. Similarly, we have not seen very encouraging progress on WHO’s Covidl9-Technology Access Pool or the C-TAP initiative, which encourages the voluntary contribution of IP, technology, and data to support the global sharing and scale-up of the manufacturing of COVID­19 medical products. Voluntary Licenses, even where they exist, are shrouded in secrecy. Their terms and conditions are not transparent. Their scope is limited to specific amounts or for a limited subset of countries, thereby encouraging nationalism rather than true international collaboration,” said Navnit.

Why is there a need to go beyond existing global cooperation initiatives?

There is a need to go beyond existing global cooperation initiatives such as the COVAX Mechanism and the ACT-Accelerator are inadequate to meet the massive global needs of 7.8 billion people. The ACT-A initiative aims to procure 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of next year and distribute them fairly around the world. With a two-dose regime, however, this will only cover I, billion people. That means that even if ACT-A is fully financed and successful, which is not the case presently, there would not be enough vaccines for the majority of the global population.

Past experience

The initial few months of the current pandemic has witnessed emptying of shelves by those who had access to masks, PPEs, sanitizers, gloves, and other essential Covid-19 items even without their immediate need.

Navnit says that the same should not happen to vaccines. Although the world was able to ramp up manufacturing of Covid-19 essentials without IP barriers hindering that, we need the same pooling of IP rights and know-how for scaling up the manufacturing of vaccines and treatments necessitating the need for the Waiver.

“It is the pandemic — an extraordinary, once in a lifetime event — that has mobilized the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. It is knowledge and skills held by scientists, researchers, public health experts and universities that have enabled the cross-country collaborations and enormous public funding that has facilitated the development of vaccines in record time — and not alone IP”

Way forward

The TRIPS waiver proposal, well-within the provisions of Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement which established the WTO, is a targeted and proportionate response to the exceptional public health emergency that the world faces today to ensure that human lives are not lost for want of timely and affordable access to vaccines.

The adoption of the Waiver will also re-establish WTO’s credibility and show the credibility of the multilateral trading system to deliver in times of a crisis and save lives and help in getting the economy back on the revival path quickly.

“While making the vaccines available was a test of science, making them accessible and affordable is going to be a test of humanity. History should remember us for the “AAA rating” i.e. for Availability, Accessibility and Affordability of Covid 19 vaccines and treatments and not for a single “A rating” for Availability only. Our future generations deserve nothing less” said Navnit in his concluding remarks.

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