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HomeTop NewsOkonjo-Iweala welcomes WTO breakthrough on COVID-19 vaccine waiver, as drugmakers kick

Okonjo-Iweala welcomes WTO breakthrough on COVID-19 vaccine waiver, as drugmakers kick

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The World Trade Organization (WTO) praised a provisional deal to waive patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines after more than a year of deadlock, though drugmakers said the move risked undermining the industry’s ability to respond to future health crises.

WTO Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala warmly welcomed the breakthrough among four WTO Members on a waiver of the Trade Related Intellectual Property agreement for the production of vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States, the European Union, India and South Africa agreed on Tuesday on key elements for a waiver.

It now needs the backing of the 164 members of the WTO, which takes decisions based on consensus, so rejection by just one country could still block an accord.

“This is a major step forward and this compromise is the result of many long and difficult hours of negotiations. But we are not there yet. We have more work to do to ensure that we have the support of the entire WTO Membership,” the Director-General said.

“While the agreement between the European Union, India, South Africa and the United States is an essential element to any final deal, she cautioned that not all the details of the compromise have been ironed out and that internal domestic consultations within the four members are still ongoing. 

Moreover, she stressed that work must commence immediately to broaden the discussions to include all 164 members of the WTO.

“In the WTO we decide by consensus, and this has not yet been achieved. My team and I have been working hard for the past three months and we are ready to roll up our sleeves again to work together with the TRIPS Council Chair Ambassador Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone) to bring about a full agreement as quickly as possible. We are grateful to the four Members for the difficult work they have undertaken so far,” said Okonjo-Iweala.

If approved, the agreement would mean countries could permit domestic manufacturers to produce vaccines without patent-holder consent for three or five years. But only developing countries accounting for less than 10 percent of global exports of COVID-19 shots in 2021 could do this.

That would appear to exclude China but clear India, which banned vaccine exports for much of 2021.

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Global drugmakers in the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said the move could undermine their ability to respond to future crises.

“Biopharmaceutical companies reaffirm their position that weakening patents now when it is widely acknowledged that there are no longer supply constraints of COVID-19 vaccines, sends the wrong signal,” IFPMA director general Thomas Cueni said.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of over 90 campaign groups, said the proposal ignored other intellectual property barriers such as trade secrets and failed to include treatments that could save millions of lives.

“In a crisis, half measures are not acceptable,” it said.

The provisional agreement says WTO members should decide within six months on an extension to cover diagnostics and therapeutics.

Pfizer declined to comment on the initiative and its German vaccine partner BioNTech had no immediate comment. The two have pledged to provide 2 billion doses of their COVID vaccine to low and middle income countries in 2021 and 2022.

AstraZeneca, the maker of another major COVID vaccine, also declined to comment.

COVAX, global programme to provide vaccines to poorer nations, has been struggling this year to place more than 300 million doses, as supply and donations have ramped up.

Poorer nations have face challenges ranging from limits on cold-chain shortage to vaccine hesitancy and inadequate funds to support distribution.

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