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Protesters hold a rally to "Free the Vaccine" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2021. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

EU Says 'Premature' to Have Urgent WTO Meeting on Covid-19

"The pandemic hasn't lasted long enough for the E.U.?"

Jessica Corbett

After over a year of the European Union blocking a proposed waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines—and as case numbers surge thanks to the Omicron variant—an E.U. representative on Monday called India's proposal for a World Trade Organization conference on pandemic response "premature."

"The pandemic hasn't lasted long enough for the E.U.?" asked Dimitri Eynikel, who represents Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, on the issue of access to medicines at the European Union.

Eynikel highlighted that the E.U. has been a primary barrier to waiving parts of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which India and South Africa first suggested back in October 2020.

The proposed WTO event would include ongoing debates about the TRIPS waiver, which advocates argue would help the world rapidly scale up Covid-19 vaccine production.

During a Tuesday Twitter conversation with Human Rights Watch's Andrew Stroehlein, Eynikel reiterated his frustration with the E.U. response to the proposed conference.

Considering that the pandemic "has been dragging on for such a long time… I can only interpret this as another delay tactic," he said of the remarks from the E.U. ambassador to the WTO.

"What I found so painful to see is that some of the tools and tactics that the European Union uses at the World Trade Organization, in these trade negotiations perhaps, they're normal in the World Trade Organization when it comes to any kind of economic interests and how you try to, you know, play your interest against another one, etc., and find agreements," Eynikel said. "But in the middle of a pandemic? Come on. This is not acceptable."

In November, the WTO General Council postponed the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) due to the pandemic. However, members of the global body continue to debate the TRIPS waiver, which requires consensus.

"More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our 12th Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated," said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO director-general, at Monday's meeting, convened to discuss India's proposal.

Okonjo-Iweala added that "we at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against Covid-19."

The E.U. ambassador, João Aguiar Machado, said at the Monday meeting that "of course, the European Union shares the view that the response to the pandemic is important."

"However, we need to be careful that a focus on this part of the MC12 agenda must not lead to a loss of momentum on the other key components," he continued, "which are equally essential to the revitalization of the organization—such as the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, agreeing on a way forward on agriculture, and finalizing the ministerial declaration with a strong commitment on WTO reform."

Machado made the case that Okonjo-Iweala and chair of the WTO General Council should hold consultations with members on those issues before deciding to hold a virtual conference.

"Any virtual ministerial should take place only once there is a consensus both on intellectual property rights and on the declaration and action plan on the wider pandemic response," he asserted. "Only a comprehensive trade response to the pandemic can make a difference and address the identified bottlenecks as regards the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines such as restricted access to raw materials and other inputs as well as complex supply chains."

"In summary, the European Union is open to consider the proposal by India and to reach an agreement on all aspects of the response to Covid-19 as quickly as possible," he concluded. "However, in the European Union's view, it is premature to decide at this point in time on either the principle or on the date for such a virtual meeting."

The E.U. ambassador's remarks and subsequent backlash come as Covid-19 has killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide and although nearly 60% of the global population has received at least one vaccine dose, less than 9% of people in low-income countries have gotten one jab.

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