Start moving fast on the vaccine IP waiver, says Goyal to the WTO

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Start moving fast on the vaccine IP waiver, says Goyal to the WTO
India has asked the WTO and its member nations to arrive at a speedy resolution on the IP waiver for Covid-19 vaccines to save lives, time and money.Courtesy: Getty Images

India’s minister for commerce and industry Piyush Goyal asks for a speedy resolution on TRIPS, instead of long, endless debates, in order to save precious time and lives rather than ensuring that the world goes back to square one of the problem.

India’s call to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to arrive at a speedy resolution on the proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property on the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines signals the dire need that the world faces to bring the pandemic under control. Infections rates have already started to climb in countries, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, that border India and they also face a vaccine shortage.

A deadlier second wave of infections has hit India and rendered its healthcare systems helpless in the fight to control the pandemic. Vaccines, oxygen supplies and drugs like Remdesivir are in short supply galvanising the world to come together in support of India.

The answers, however, lie in the speedy availability of the vaccine that could arrest the climbing infection rates and save lives. India’s call for multilateral support on the IP waiver and a speedy resolution to the request brought to the WTO only signifies the depth of the problem which is already showing signs of spiralling out of control as more and more countries in India’s neighbourhood are in danger of experiencing a second pandemic wave.

Drugmakers, who have produced coronavirus vaccines in record time, oppose the proposal, saying it could disrupt a stretched and fragile supply chain. Okonjo-Iweala said that only by sitting down together could a solution be found acceptable to all.

Speaking at the global trade outlook session at the World Economic Forum, union commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal sent out a reminder to the WTO saying, “I hope we can look at multilateral support and a consensus being developed and quickly (at WTO). Here speed is of the essence and if it takes months to negotiate a consensus or an agreement, or we do negotiate it and we don't get the raw materials for it, then we are back to square one.”

Women in queue to get vaccine against Covid-19 coronavirus in a community vaccination drive. Faced with a deadly second wave of the pandemic, which has a stronger variant of the Coronavirus, India is facing a shortage of essential medical supplies and the vaccine.
Women in queue to get vaccine against Covid-19 coronavirus in a community vaccination drive. Faced with a deadly second wave of the pandemic, which has a stronger variant of the Coronavirus, India is facing a shortage of essential medical supplies and the vaccine. Courtesy: Getty Images

WTO director Okonjo-Iweala weighs in behind India’s call

Goyal’s views were also echoed by WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who was also present at the session. She believed that besides TRIPS waiver, countries need to lower export restrictions, and augment production to make vaccine access equitable, increase volume and distribution.

“We can’t afford to take months and years to negotiate something. We are talking about lives being lost. I am hoping members will come to the table quickly and start discussions,” she said. The hope is that member countries can reach a consensus on the TRIPS waiver by July with a final outcome set for December, when the WTO ministerial council meeting is scheduled.

I hope we can look at multilateral support and a consensus being developed and quickly (at WTO). Here speed is of the essence and if it takes months to negotiate a consensus or an agreement, or we do negotiate it and we don't get the raw materials for it, then we are back to square one.
- Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce & Industry

Global solidarity in the fight against the virus is the focal point with nations sharing the vaccine liberally with others who are in need of it. The US has taken a decision to provide limited support to the vaccine patent debate, but the important decisions need to be taken around the equitable, timely and affordable access of vaccines to all, including therapeutics and other forms of medical support needed to fight the virus.

When India managed to contain the first wave of the pandemic it had provided almost 67 million doses of the vaccine to various parts of the world while being cognisant of IP rights during manufacturing and distribution of these vaccines.

According to reports, the WTO head wants to have an agreement on trade and health, including but not only the intellectual property rights issue, by the WTO's ministerial conference on Nov. 30-Dec. 3.

Richer nations have benefited from the vaccine

The head of the European Commission, which oversees trade policy in the 27-country European Union, said the bloc was willing to discuss a waiver proposal.

Until now, the EU has been with a group of countries, many of them home to large pharmaceutical companies, including Britain and Switzerland, that have opposed the waiver. Drugmakers, who have produced coronavirus vaccines in record time, oppose the proposal, saying it could disrupt a stretched and fragile supply chain.

Okonjo-Iweala said that only by sitting down together could a solution be found acceptable to all - improving developing countries' access to vaccines and protecting research and innovation vital to production of life-saving vaccines.

According to Reuters, there are concerns, specially by the US administration, that the waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents to aid poor countries could handover sensitive US biopharmaceutical technology to China and Russia. The waiver of the IP rights means that pporer countries can make their own vaccines. So far the bulk of the vaccines have gone to richer nations who scooped up contracts for them early this year. As a result of this infection rates in richer countries have gone down in contrast infections still rising steadily in 36 countries including India.

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