WTO chief Okonjo-Iweala seeks equitable access to Covid vaccines
By Oludare Mayowa
The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Wednesday urged members of the organisation to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, noting that the future of global economy is tied around vaccination.
The head of the global trade watchdog, who spoke at the organization’s General Council meeting said WTO need to have a sense of urgency on how “we approach this issue of response to COVID-19 because the world is watching.”
According to her, the way the WTO handles the matter is critical, adding that “vaccine policy is economic policy because the global economic recovery cannot be sustained unless we find a way to get equitable access to vaccines.”
“First, members should share their vaccines, those who have ordered more than they truly need should share with others, either through the COVAX facility or other mechanisms.
“Those who have raw materials should allow these to flow through supply chains so that all who can manufacture can take advantage of this.
“We should pay attention to the availability of skilled workers who can also help in the production of these commodities.”
She also stated that members need to look at the issue of export restrictions and prohibitions and bureaucratic procedures and customs procedures that may confront supply chain mobility with respect to the manufacture of products to combat COVID-19.
“Third, we need to work with manufacturers to enable them to mobilize existing capacity that is idle to manufacture.
“We heard from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, South Africa, and so on, Indonesia, Senegal, that there is some existing capacity that can be turned around in some months to be able to allow us to manufacture the kinds of doses we may need to go from the 5 billion doses produced in the world today to the 10.8 billion being forecast for this year to 15 billion, in particular, if we need booster doses.
“So we cannot act soon enough to put manufacturing capacity that is idle at work immediately and to invest in additional manufacturing capacity for the future.
“We also have to think of how to deal not just with this pandemic but of what role the WTO is going to play to ensure that we meet the needs of our members in a future pandemic or even the continuation of this one,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
At the General Council meeting, WTO members agreed to allow the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to continue consideration of the proposal first put forward by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations in response to COVID-19.
Members approved the status report submitted by the chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, indicating the current lack of consensus on this issue and highlighting the common goal shared by members of providing access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all.
The status report provided a neutral and factual communication reflecting the state of play of discussions and the need for more time to advance discussions.
Over 40 delegations took the floor at the General Council under this agenda item. Members expressed different views in their discussion about the impact of IP protection in ensuring rapid and safe access to vaccines and other medical products.
Supporters of the proposal were of the view that the current challenges posed by the pandemic can only be effectively addressed by waiving certain TRIPS obligations.
Other delegations remained unconvinced about the necessity for a waiver at the international level, with some members arguing that a waiver might undermine ongoing collaborative efforts.
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala intervened at the conclusion of the discussion. She extended her sympathy to those members that are experiencing an upsurge in the pandemic and thanked other members who have sought to help countries under stress.
She also welcomed the news that the proponents of the TRIPS waiver proposal were planning to submit a revised text initially submitted in October 2020 in a bid to reconcile positions.
They requested the chair of the TRIPS Council to consider holding a meeting open to all members in the second half of May to discuss the revised proposal before the next formal TRIPS Council meeting scheduled for early June.
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all sides that allow the kinds of answers that our developing country members are looking at with respect to vaccines, whilst at the same time looking at research and innovation and how to protect them,” DG Okonko-Iweala said.
Photo Credit: WTO