South Africa hailed by WTO for compromise on COVID vaccine production waivers

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A compromise for a waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines has been found between four major industrial players, says the WTO, calling on other member countries to be convinced.

Noting that the details of the compromise have yet to be finalized, World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Wednesday highlighted the “decisive progress made” by the European Union, the United States, the India and South Africa “on a waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights for the production of Covid-19 vaccines.”

“It’s a big step forward,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

A few hours earlier, Adam Hodge, spokesman for the US Trade Representative, had announced “a compromise opening the way (…) to a concrete and significant result”.

While emphasizing – like several other observers – that consultations on the text, which has not yet been published, were still ongoing.

In the United States, the Chamber of Commerce has already expressed its opposition to a waiver of intellectual property rights.

This technical agreement must now be confirmed at the political level, according to the entourage of the French Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade, Franck Riester.

According to the same source, the compromise on the table would only be applicable to developing countries, and only to those which represent less than 10% of annual world exports of Covid vaccines, excluding de facto China.

The compromise is not intended to dismantle the current intellectual property system, but to facilitate the granting of “compulsory licenses”, in the face of the Covid pandemic but also for future health crises.

Within the framework of the WTO agreements, a compulsory license exists, allowing public authorities to use a patent without the authorization of its holder. A system that provides compensation to the group at its origin.

– “Considerable restrictions” –

Once the compromise has been validated politically, the EU, the United States, India and South Africa will have to convince the other members of the WTO, where decisions are taken by consensus.

Switzerland, which is home to large pharmaceutical companies, has repeatedly expressed its strong reservations about the principle of a waiver of intellectual property rights.

Many developing countries, supported by NGOs and some international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are calling for a waiver of intellectual property rights to facilitate greater knowledge sharing and the rapid proliferation of sites vaccine production.

The pharmaceutical lobby, represented by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), is fighting against any plan to waive intellectual property rights, arguing that there are enough vaccines produced in the world (currently 12 billion doses per year) and that the priority is to speed up distribution.

“Technology transfer goes far beyond patents, it is based on trust, sharing of know-how and voluntary licensing,” the organization said on Wednesday.

Discussions at the WTO on intellectual property and access to vaccines in poor countries were launched by India and South Africa during 2020.

In the absence of real progress, those same two countries, joined by the United States and the EU, launched a small group in December to negotiate a compromise.

In a statement, Médecins sans frontières pointed out that the compromise contains “considerable restrictions”: “it is geographically limited, covers only patents and does not address other obstacles to intellectual property, such as trade secrets.

“It is extremely worrying that the text… currently only covers vaccines, but not treatments or diagnostics,” said Dimitri Eynikel of MSF.

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