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WTO to hold talks on virtual ministerial on Covid TRIPS issue

Trade 2022-01-12, 9:01pm


Intellectual property rights

Geneva, 10 Jan (D. Ravi Kanth) – Amidst the worsening COVID-19 pandemic across countries due to the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the World Trade Organization appears to be procrastinating on a demand for convening an urgent virtual ministerial meeting to decide on the TRIPS component of the WTO’s response to the pandemic, said people familiar with the development.

The Omicron variant has led to a sudden explosion of COVID-19 cases in various countries, with confirmed cases estimated at more than 303 million while the reported deaths is around 5.5 million globally.

But several estimates have suggested that overall global deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic could be more than 10 million.

The World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on 6 January that just like previous variants, the Omicron variant is hospitalizing people, and it’s killing people.

He said the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick that it is overwhelming health systems around the world.

Following India’s request for an urgent ministerial meeting, the WTO’s General Council (GC) chair, Ambassador Dacio Castillo from Honduras, is likely to consult with members.

Apparently, the GC chair has shared India’s missive with members, said people familiar with the development.

Initially, India made the request for convening the meeting with the WTO’s director-general Ms Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala last month.

But the DG apparently adopted a bureaucratic route by asking India to consult with the GC chair.

In contrast, the DG held a virtual ministerial meeting on 15 July last year on fisheries subsidies without holding adequate consultations.

However, the same standard was not adopted when it came to the WTO’s response to the pandemic with a “TRIPS dimension”.

Following the DG’s response, India apparently requested the GC chair to facilitate the convening of the virtual meeting on a single issue on finalizing the WTO’s response to the pandemic, particularly on the TRIPS component involving the temporary TRIPS waiver co-sponsored by 64 countries.

The GC chair has forwarded India’s request to all the members on holding consultations to elicit members’ response, said a person, who asked not to be quoted.

With the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus all over the world, the urgency for agreeing on the temporary TRIPS waiver has assumed heightened urgency.

The temporary TRIPS waiver seeks to suspend certain provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and protection of undisclosed information for ramping-up production of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines across countries.

The real problem in not convening the virtual ministerial meeting on the TRIPS component seems to be the alleged attempts by the European Union and several other industrialized countries to link the TRIPS waiver to an outcome on fisheries subsidies, said several people, who asked not to be quoted.

In all probability, the EU and a handful of countries, who are blocking the TRIPS waiver, may seek a virtual ministerial meeting at the end of February or early March to discuss these two issues simultaneously, said people, preferring anonymity.

So far, the DG-facilitated discussions among the trade ministers from the United States, the European Union, India, and South Africa last month apparently made modest progress, with the EU insisting on its proposal relating to the implementation of compulsory licensing provisions in Article 31 of the TRIPS Agreement, said people, who asked not to be quoted.

Subsequently, meetings took place at the level of experts on several issues involving the TRIPS component, and it appears that talks will continue next month.

“They had all agreed on a framework that could lead to a solution satisfactory to both sides,” the DG said in an interview with the Reuters news agency on 16 December.

She said “no one side will get 100%, but it’s a satisfactory solution that I think both sides could sign onto. We are very much moving in that direction.”

The TRIPS waiver and fisheries subsidies are tangentially different issues.

Significantly, the delay in addressing the TRIPS waiver appears to be due to renewed attempts by a few countries to link the TRIPS waiver with their core demands that include an outcome on fisheries subsidies to a blueprint on agriculture subsidies, said people, who preferred not to be quoted.

Brussels appears to have strongly opposed the TRIPS waiver during the consultations that the DG held with the trade ministers of the United States, the EU, India, and South Africa.

It wants its counterparts to agree on its proposal relating to the use of compulsory licensing provisions in Article 31 of the TRIPS Agreement, while refusing to consider the beneficial effects globally due to the waiver.


Notwithstanding the groundswell of support for the temporary TRIPS waiver among parliamentarians, international civil society organizations, former world leaders, and Nobel Laureates, the EU’s obdurate stance seems to be tilted in favour of Big Pharma, said people who asked not to be quoted.

As reported in SUNS #9485 dated 21 December 2021, there have been repeated calls for adopting the waiver on a priority basis.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper on 15 December, under the title “If Olaf Scholz is serious about progress, he must back patent waiver for Covid vaccines”, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz said “imagine that the WTO waiver had been granted a year ago when it was first proposed: there would be fewer infected people, fewer hospital patients and fewer deaths today, especially in developing countries and emerging economies. That is why production facilities in the global South must be brought on stream as soon as possible. Otherwise, we have no realistic chance of winning the fight against the pandemic anytime soon.”

Stiglitz argued in the same article that “the WTO waiver is about more than just humanitarian concern and global fairness. For Germany as a major exporter, as well as a country of world-traveling tourists, this is also a matter of self-interest. Every day we read headlines about how COVID has disrupted supply chains. This has a direct impact on the global economy. The underlying logic is clear: the fewer people worldwide who are vaccinated, the more room the virus has to mutate into dangerous variants.”

With vaccine inequity becoming the major source for the new variants of the virus, Dr Craig Spencer, the director of Global Health Emergencies at Columbia University, said in an interview to Democracy Now on 7 January, “global vaccine inequity has been, I think, one of the most profound and disappointing aspects of this pandemic over the past year.”

He observed that “there has been a very intentional campaign by pharmaceutical companies to do whatever they can to reap the most profit of this at the expense of people all around the world that continue to lack access, to healthcare workers, you know, over 115,000 of my colleagues that have died around the world, and so many of them, the majority of them in places like sub-Saharan Africa, still haven’t been able to receive access to a vaccine.”

Dr Spencer said it “is completely unacceptable” and “it is responsible, as we’ve seen, for leading to the conditions where more potentially immune-evasive variants can arrive and potentially undermine the efficacy of our vaccines here.”

“We should have, not as a country but as a globe, done incredibly more, since day one, to scale up the production of these highly effective vaccines, not just here in the US, where they’ve long been made and where they can make a big profit, but everywhere all around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 99% of all vaccines before the pandemic had to be brought in from other countries, because the capacity had never been built up and hadn’t been supported. And we’re going to end this pandemic in a not much better position than when we started it.”

Surprisingly, the gravity of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant does not appear to have been factored into the WTO’s response to the pandemic, said a negotiator, who asked not to be quoted.

According to the DG’s statements made at the formal Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC)/heads of delegation meeting on 19 November, as well as at the heads of delegation meeting on 2 December, it seems somewhat clear on the emphasis placed on fisheries subsidies.

For example, in her intervention at the formal TNC meeting on 19 November, the DG said that “on the fisheries subsidies negotiations, I, and indeed all of you, have heard loud and clear from the Leaders and Ministers across all regions of the Membership, their desire and commitment to conclude these negotiations at MC12. We heard directly from Ministers four months ago, and I am hearing from them now.”

In short, treating the TRIPS dimension in the WTO’s response to the pandemic on a commercial basis instead of addressing it as an unprecedented global public health crisis and linking it with other tangentially different issues, has only raised serious questions as to whether the WTO serves the interests of people at large or the profits of Big Pharma.

Biodiversity targets will not be met without debt and tax justice

Resource mobilization debates in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) tend to emphasize the amount of funding estimated as necessary to reach biodiversity targets. This outlook directs attention towards attracting new financing for biodiversity conservation, but risks paying far too little attention to the underlying economic drivers of biodiversity loss, which are intensified and unequally distributed as a result of the structure of the global economy (for more on this, see Beyond the Gap: Placing Biodiversity Finance in the Global Economy).

In this comment for the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, Dempsey et al. demonstrate how current structural conditions of the economy (such as overreliance on debt with highly unequal and unfair conditions) create the economic pressures that drive biodiversity loss, while undercutting public spending available for biodiversity goals, among other crucial public goods and services.

They then propose two types of reforms that ought to be considered as part of the call for ‘transformative change’: tax reform and debt justice. Such approaches to biodiversity funding would more permanently counter the debt-austerity nexus that limits developing countries in particular from reaching their biodiversity targets, while beginning to right the historic imbalance between those who have economically benefited the most from biodiversity decline and those who have not. These are particularly important in the face of climate and biodiversity-related risk frameworks that could impede future access to capital of developing countries to address such issues.

In light of the grossly insufficient international public finance currently committed to support developing countries to meet their biodiversity targets, such structural reforms should be on the table as part of fulfilling the common but differentiated responsibilities set out in Article 20 of the CBD. Current negotiations under the CBD to agree on a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework should also integrate these imperatives. By doing so, public resources will be greatly mobilized and harmful financial flows deflated, while dismantling the political and economic structures that inhibit implementation of biodiversity policy in the first place.

- Third World Network

Full paper available here: