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Ministers must address WTO failure on diagnostics, therapeutics

Trade 2023-01-17, 11:04pm

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Geneva, 16 Jan (D. Ravi Kanth) — The World Trade Organization “has failed to respond and extend a narrow flexibility agreed at MC12 to therapeutics and diagnostics,” said the co-sponsors of the TRIPS waiver proposal, as trade ministers from more than 20 countries congregate for an informal ministerial meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on 20 January.

“This failure seems graver considering how relevant international organizations look to WTO while stressing on the urgency of this matter,” the co-sponsors said in a restricted proposal (Job/GC/332) issued last month.

SLEW OF DAVOS MEETINGS

The World Trade Organization’s Director-General, Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is expected to address several meetings at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Davos meeting on Thursday, followed by an informal ministerial meeting hosted by Switzerland on Friday.

On Thursday, four meetings are scheduled to take place at the WEF’s Congress Center.

The DG along with the WEF’s president will hold a luncheon meeting with select countries on issues concerning leadership.

The DG is also expected to hold an informal meeting with several countries for one hour on the same day.

The third meeting is being hosted by the European Union, Ecuador, New Zealand, and Kenya on issues concerning trade and climate change.

Apparently, such a meeting was held at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference (MC12) in June last year but there were few participants, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.

On Friday morning, the coordinators of the controversial plurilateral Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on digital trade – Singapore, Japan, and Australia – will hold a breakfast meeting at Hotel Morosani Schweizerhof in Davos.

Later, the Swiss economy and education minister Mr Guy Parmelin will hold a three-hour ministerial meeting with trade ministers from more than a score of countries.

Participating ministers are being asked to address the following two questions:

* What are Members’ expectations for MC13 and what shall be the priorities in the preparation for a successful Ministerial Conference?

* How shall we guide the process and in what areas is further ministerial involvement required in the lead-up to MC13?

After the informal ministerial meeting on Friday, Australia is expected to host a meeting of the Cairns Group of farm-exporting countries at the same hotel.

The Cairns Group seems to be on the verge of a major split between South American farm-exporting countries on the one side, and Australia and New Zealand on the other, on climate-change-related trade issues in agriculture, said a person, who asked not to be quoted.

TRIPS DECISION ON DIAGNOSTICS & THERAPEUTICS

The slew of meetings is apparently taking place against the backdrop of a seemingly enveloping paralysis in all three areas of negotiations, dispute settlement decisions, and the functioning of the WTO Secretariat, particularly the huge setback suffered by the DG to her budget proposal last month.

Last month, the WTO suffered several setbacks including the failure to extend the mandated MC12 Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement to diagnostics and therapeutics by the 17 December deadline.

Although the issue will come up for discussion at the first General Council meeting in March, several developing country trade ministers are expected to raise this issue at the Davos meeting, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.

Days after a small group of countries blocked the TRIPS decision on diagnostics and therapeutics at the General Council meeting last month, the co-sponsors of the TRIPS waiver proposal drawn from the developing countries circulated a proposal on 22 December.

In a restricted document (Job/GC/332), seen by the SUNS, the co-sponsors argued that “the pandemic has, from its outset, raised issues at the crossroads of public health, trade, intellectual property (IP) policy, and the framework for and management of innovation and access, including issues related to technology transfer.”

The co-sponsors argued that “a more comprehensive waiver decision as envisaged in the original TRIPS waiver proposal as entailed in IP/C/W/669 and IP/C/W/669/Rev.1 (“original TRIPS waiver proposal”) co-sponsored by 65 WTO Members would support the efforts to ensure timely, equitable and universal access to safe, affordable and effective therapeutics and diagnostics, ramping up of production and expanding supply options.”

They said that “the MC12 Decision on the TRIPS Agreement approved on 17 June 2022 in document WT/MIN(22)/30 – WT/L/1141 is far removed from the comprehensive TRIPS waiver proposal which envisaged a comprehensive policy tool to help make COVID-19 health products available and affordable for everyone.”

According to the co-sponsors, “ensuring equitable, affordable, timely and universal access for all countries to COVID-19 medical tools and technologies calls upon states and other relevant stakeholders to take appropriate measures to guarantee fair, transparent, equitable, efficient, universal and timely access and distribution of safe, quality, efficacious, effective, accessible and affordable COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”

Therefore, “scaling up manufacturing and addressing concentration of production of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics is critical to protect people.”

The co-sponsors said that “the WTO has failed to respond and extend a narrow flexibility agreed at MC12 to therapeutics and diagnostics,” adding that “this failure seems graver considering how relevant international organizations look to WTO while stressing on the urgency of this matter.”

The co-sponsors said “the DG (Director-General) of the WHO (World Health Organization), at a joint technical symposium of WTO, WHO and WIPO, on 16 December 2022 in Geneva, remarked that (abridged):

“We have come a long way in bringing the pandemic under control, and we are in a much better position. But the pandemic is still not over. Ten thousand people are dying from this virus every week …

“Access to diagnostics and life-saving treatments for COVID-19 remains unacceptably unaffordable and unequal, although access to vaccines has improved significantly;

“The burden of the post-COVID-19 condition is only likely to increase; …

“We hope that WTO Member States will soon reach an agreement on the extension of the TRIPS waiver for diagnostics and therapeutics.

“Local production of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics is key to bringing this pandemic to an end, and for strengthening preparedness for future emergencies.”

The co-sponsors said they provided “sufficient evidence in relation to IP barriers relating to therapeutics and diagnostics.”

“The ACT-Accelerator Facilitation Council Working Group Report on Diagnostics and Therapeutics states that the equitable roll-out of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics continues to be inadequate and threatens to undo public health gains achieved throughout the pandemic”.

The co-sponsors expressed grave concern that “while the WTO is engaged in circular discussions, people continue to die and our populations continue to be at risk of new variants.”

Expressing disappointment that “the deadline to decide on this important issue has had to be extended due to refusal by a few Members that are protecting their commercial interests,” the co-sponsors called “on the WTO membership to agree on a deadline to extend the MC12 decision on the TRIPS Agreement to cover therapeutics and diagnostics at the first General Council meeting of 2023.”

“Crucially, the WTO Membership must extend the WTO Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement to cover therapeutics and diagnostics in the interest of public health,” the co-sponsors argued.

OTHER FAILURES

Members also failed to agree on the new chairs for overseeing the Doha fisheries subsidies and agriculture negotiations for more than six months.

Worse still, the continued deadlock on reviving the two-stage dispute settlement system as well as the openly defiant refusal by the United States to implement two recent WTO panel rulings against the rampant use of national security measures by the US seems to have cast serious doubts on whether the enforcement function of the WTO can survive, said people, who asked not to be quoted.

- Third World Network