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Activists demonstrate in favor of an agreement to waive patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines on in Geneva on November 30, 2021 in Geneva. (Phot: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

WTO Negotiations Prioritize Institution's Reputation Over COVID Medicines Access

It's embarrassing that the WTO as an institution is so broken that it cannot deliver an emergency waiver of its own rules in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that shuttered the entire global economy.

Tian JohnsonMelinda St. Louis

It's shameful when leaders prioritize saving a floundering institution and obscene corporate profits over saving lives.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what may happen at the World Trade Organization (WTO), as trade ministers seem poised to thwart a two-year effort to remove trade barriers that impede global production of lifesaving COVID vaccines and treatments.

This shameful inaction by the WTO contributed to the tragic reality that still only 15% of people in low-income countries have received their first shot.

World Trade Organization (WTO) "intellectual property" rules require countries to guarantee pharmaceutical corporations' monopoly control over the medicines they produce, which means a long wait for production of generics.

So, as soon as COVID vaccines and promising treatments became available (thanks in large part to the public research on cutting-edge mRNA technology), it should have been a no-brainer for WTO members to quickly agree to temporarily remove those barriers and compel pharma corporations to share the know-how to rapidly increase production all over the world.

Sadly, that didn't happen.

Despite impressive efforts led by South Africa and India beginning in October 2020 for an emergency waiver of these WTO rules for COVID vaccines, tests and treatments, that was cosponsored by more than 60 other countries, wealthy countries blocked this effort to put human lives over Big Pharma profits.

After a powerful campaign led by public health, labor, and human rights organizations last year, in May 2021 President Joe Biden announced support for this important WTO waiver for COVID vaccines, which the world hoped would unlock the consensus needed at the WTO to deliver the waiver.

But the European Union, at the behest of Big Pharma-friendly Germany, continued to block action on the waiver, despite support by more than 100 countries.

And now – more than two years into the pandemic with an estimated 15 million lives lost – due to the EU's intransigence, the WTO has still not secured a comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rules that should have been delivered on day one.

This shameful inaction by the WTO contributed to the tragic reality that still only 15% of people in low-income countries have received their first shot, and the world will be ill-prepared to ramp up rapid production of next-generation vaccines targeting new variants, as well as lifesaving treatments and diagnostics.

Instead, WTO members in Geneva are now being forced to debate a shocking counterproposal that the WTO Director-General claims to be a "compromise" among the U.S., EU, South Africa, and India, but has only been endorsed by the EU.

The EU's support isn't surprising because the counterproposal does not waive the intellectual property barriers or achieve the goals of the original proposal. Instead, it is a clarification of existing, insufficient options that countries already have at their disposal. And it would even add new hurdles to countries trying to bypass intellectual property barriers.

The proposal also excludes tests and treatments, as demanded by the U.S., despite President Biden acknowledging that these tools are critical at this stage of the pandemic.

The EU and WTO leadership are hoping to force countries to agree to this terrible proposal so the WTO can claim to have done something to address the barriers that it created, when in fact public health experts worldwide have analyzed the text and are unanimous that it would actually be worse than nothing at all.

Negotiations in Geneva have been contentious. Rich countries have been proposing amendments to water down the already-unacceptable counterproposal. Waiver proponents have been left to beg for crumbs, requesting small improvements to a text that bears no resemblance to the original proposal. The pressure from WTO leadership has been intense, with regular lectures to country delegations that this text is "the only game in town," and they must reach agreement by the June 12 Ministerial or they will be "a failure." 

It's embarrassing that the WTO as an institution is so broken that it cannot deliver an emergency waiver of its own rules in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that shuttered the entire global economy.

It's not too late for WTO member governments to remember their responsibility is first and foremost to deliver for their people who have suffered immensely during this pandemic, not to salvage the relevance of a broken institution or to protect the profits of Big Pharma companies.

The U.S. government should follow the lead of experts in South Africa, India and around the globe, public health, human rights and labor organizations and prominent voices such as former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and reject this unacceptable proposal and demand a comprehensive waiver of WTO rules for COVID vaccines, tests, and treatments.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
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Tian Johnson

Tian Johnson is the founder and lead of the African Alliance, a queer advocate, and member of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Covid-19 Vaccine.

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