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TWN Info Service on Health Issues (Feb21/05)
22 February 2021
Third World Network


US lawmakers urge Biden to support TRIPS waiver proposal at WTO
Published in SUNS #9290 dated 22 February 2021

Geneva, 19 Feb (D. Ravi Kanth) – A group of lawmakers from the Democratic Party want US President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS waiver proposal that seeks to temporarily suspend several provisions in the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, said a source familiar with the development.

South Africa, India, and nine other developing countries have proposed the TRIPS waiver for temporarily suspending provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and protection of undisclosed information in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic by ramping up production of medical equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines across many countries.

Around 90 countries have broadly supported the TRIPS waiver proposal at the WTO, South Africa’s leading TRIPS negotiator Mr Mustaqeem Da Gama told the SUNS on 19 February.

Meanwhile, amidst a groundswell of support from international civil society organizations for the TRIPS waiver, US lawmakers from the Democratic Party have also joined forces to persuade President Biden to agree to the waiver proposal, according to a report in the Washington Trade Daily (WTD) on 19 February.

The US House Representative Ms Jan Schakowsky “is circulating a letter to President Biden for signature by her colleagues urging him to reverse the Trump Administration’s opposition to the waiver,” according to the WTD.

At a virtual meeting on 18 February, Ms Schakowsky informed participants that she had raised the issue at a Democratic Caucus meeting the previous day and the US House Speaker Ms Nancy Pelosi expressed support for the waiver, the WTD report suggested.

Speaking at the same virtual meeting, Mr Mustaqeem Da Gama informed the participants that the waiver proposal “is about justice, it’s about saving lives.”

He said that the WTO members are discussing how to reach common ground, suggesting that a better system is needed to respond to global pandemics.

When asked at the daily White House press briefing on 18 February whether the Biden-Harris administration will support the TRIPS waiver proposal, the spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the current focus is to work with the COVAX facility being implemented by the World Health Organization and the Geneva-based GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance) to ensure the distribution of vaccines around the world, according to the WTD report.

Apparently, President Biden is expected to announce financial support of around $4 billion for COVAX to ensure the distribution of vaccines around the world.

NEW WTO DIRECTOR-GENERAL

The new WTO director-general Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who sat on the GAVI board until recently, caused consternation among developing countries by remaining conspicuously silent on the TRIPS waiver proposal while overly supporting the WHO’s ACT-A (Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator) and the WHO-GAVI’s COVAX facility, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.

In her acceptance speech at a special General Council meeting on 15 February (Job/GC/250), Ms Ngozi said “for the global economy to return to sustained growth, the global community will need to get a tight grip on the pandemic by intensifying cooperation to make equitable and affordable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics a key plank of the recovery.”

“With new COVID variants spreading rapidly all over,” she said, “we must have a sense of urgency to getting control of the pandemic.”

According to the new DG, “the WTO can and must play a more forceful role in exercising its monitoring function and encouraging Members to minimize or remove export restrictions and prohibitions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment.”

The Geneva-based International Trade Centre recently reported that up to 100 countries still maintain export restrictions and prohibitions, she said.

“WTO Members have a further responsibility to reject vaccine nationalism and protectionism,” the new DG said, underscoring the need for intensifying “cooperation on promising new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.”

In sharp contrast to the underlying rationale of the TRIPS waiver, Ms Ngozi said “there should be a “third way” to broaden access through facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules, so as to encourage research and innovation while at the same time allowing licensing agreements that help scale up manufacturing of medical products.”

DG’S PRAISE FOR PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES

Ms Ngozi showered praise on “some pharmaceutical companies”, saying that they “are already ahead of the game because they are doing this.”

She said that “Astrazeneca has licensed production in several countries, and has recently declared that it is willing to look at more such arrangements.”

According to Mr Da Gama, Astrazeneca is charging double the price paid by the European companies in South Africa.

However, the new DG went on to support Big Pharma, saying that “Johnson & Johnson seems willing to follow suit looking beyond contract manufacturing to licensing agreements. The Serum Institute of India, which is set [up] to manufacture up to 1 billion doses of vaccines, is a good example.”

“Facilitating such arrangements will enable the WTO to support the WHO ACT-Accelerator, especially the COVAX facility to get affordable vaccines quickly to poor countries,” the new DG said.

“Looking beyond this pandemic, the WTO must be proactive in strengthening cooperation with other multilateral and bilateral partners, the private sector, and civil society to set a framework for dealing with problems of the global commons such as this pandemic,” she said.

Ms Ngozi’s silence on the TRIPS waiver caused alarm among the supporters of the waiver.

“It’s disturbing that even without assuming office, she chose to extend her support to controversial initiatives while ignoring the TRIPS waiver that is being supported by around 100 countries,” said a TRIPS negotiator, who asked not to be quoted.

It remains to be seen what she might say when the issue comes up for discussion at the General Council meeting on 1 March.

However, the Economist magazine, in its current issue of 20 February, says “the waiver proposal has not gained much support among other WTO members and Ms Okonjo-Iweala does not seem to be advocating for it.”

The Economist’s comments on the TRIPS waiver are patently false, said a TRIPS negotiator, who preferred not to be quoted.

According to the Economist, “On February 15th, she (Mr Ngozi) pointed to existing TRIPS flexibilities, and she warned about the risks of putting off investment in vaccines to combat the variants of COVID-19.”

SCRAMBLE OVER COVID VACCINES

Significantly, in an interview to the Guardian newspaper on 19 February, Mr Da Gama said “the scramble over Covid vaccines should alert rich countries to the power of profit-driven companies that control production of crucial medicines.”

“While Rome is burning, we are fiddling around [waiting],” said Mr Da Gama, who called on nations where many of these pharmaceutical firms are based to stop blocking the patent waiver proposed at the WTO.

“The first effective vaccines were ready four or five months ago. Do you think it would have made a difference if we had the capacity to manufacture? I certainly think so,” Mr Da Gama said.

“Supplies are low after rich countries bought more vaccines than they needed to, leading to predictions that many low-income countries may not be able to reach mass immunization until 2024,” he told the Guardian.

“More structural change was needed to enable countries to make their own vaccines instead of relying on terms set by donors or profit-driven companies,” he said, suggesting that “the infrastructure right now is providing a minimum and leaving the rest to the private sector.”

“I don’t think governments should be outsourcing their responsibility for public health to private companies who are responsible to shareholders only,” he said.

DOUBLE STANDARDS BY EU AND OTHERS

Meanwhile, on 18 February, a group of South American countries – Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay – expressed sharp concern over the European Union’s trade-restrictive measures on the export of COVID-19 vaccines that goes against Brussels’ Trade and Health initiative, which is being jointly advanced with other members of the Ottawa Group.

The joint compliant by the five South American countries appears to have exposed the double standards adopted by the EU along with other members of the Ottawa Group of countries that include Canada, Australia, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore, Korea, Chile, and Kenya that are calling for a General Council decision on the Trade and Health initiative, said a TRIPS negotiator, who asked not to be quoted.

While the EU and other members of the Ottawa Group of countries have opposed the TRIPS waiver, they reckon that their Trade and Health initiative that seeks further liberalization of trade in medical products, including vaccines will address the shortage of vaccines, the negotiator said.

In their joint proposal (WT/GC/W/818), the five countries circulated a draft General Council decision, arguing that “the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges in recent history, having a deep social and economic impact worldwide.”

The South American countries said that “a global pandemic can only be resolved collectively and through enhanced multilateral cooperation.”

Therefore, “access to COVID-19 vaccines to all WTO Members is essential in collectively fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic,” the South American countries said, underscoring the need to ensure that international trade remains a powerful tool to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic while contributing to global economic recovery.

While acknowledging that the EU is a supporter of a rules-based trading system and sponsor of the Trade and Health initiative that calls on WTO Members “to make their utmost efforts to prevent further disruptions in the supply chains of essential medical goods,” the five countries expressed their serious concern over the EU’s recent actions.

The five countries cautioned against the specific measures being implemented by the EU. The measures include:

1. The recent European Union’s decision to put in place a Transparency and Authorization Mechanism for Exports of COVID-19 Vaccines, and its Implementing Regulation, which allows for the adoption of export restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines from the territory of the European Union;

2. Implementing such measures would disrupt significantly the supply chains and global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and its overall predictability; and

3. The effects of such measures may negatively impact the current and future fair access to essential medicines for all WTO Members, including for the European Union.

They jointly called on the EU “to exercise restraint in the adoption and implementation of any such measures.”

OTTAWA GROUP PROPOSAL ON TRADE AND HEALTH

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Group of countries also circulated on 18 February their proposal on “Trade and Health: COVID-19 and Beyond” that calls for “ensuring access to essential medical goods during a pandemic” and “resilient and robust supply chains that function in a stable and predictable trading environment.”

The twelve members of the Ottawa Group – Canada, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Korea, Brazil, Chile, and Kenya – have called on WTO members to take several actions to respond to the current COVID-19 related challenges in international trade.

“These actions,” according to the co-sponsors, “are intended to facilitate trade in essential medical goods in these critical times and enhance the capacity of the trading system to deal with a public health emergency.”

They claimed that their set of actions are “not intended to be prescriptive and do not cover the whole universe of possible measures that could support trade in essential medical goods.”

“Rather, they reflect emerging best practices and should provide sufficient flexibility to be adapted to differing national circumstances,” the co-sponsors argued.

On export restrictions, the 12 countries said that they will “review and promptly eliminate unnecessary existing restrictions on exports of essential medical goods necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic” and “exercise restraint in the imposition of any new export restrictions, including export taxes, on essential medical goods and on any prospective vaccine or vaccine materials.”

More crucially, in the arena of “customs, services and technical regulations,” the 12 countries said that they will “share experiences as regards the trade facilitating measures that have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 crisis with a view to establishing best practices in the context of a crisis. We will consider to what extent they can be made permanent.”

They clarified that “such measures may include digital customs procedures, and services such as freight, logistics, distribution and transport, which have proven an effective tool in facilitating the frictionless movement of essential medical goods across borders.”

Another important aspect of the proposal is related to tariffs, whereby the 12 countries said they “will make best endeavours to temporarily remove or reduce tariffs on goods that are considered essential to fighting COVID-19 pandemic, as far as possible, taking into account national circumstances.”

“We may choose the method of implementation of such a temporary tariff removal or reduction, which could take the form of emergency duty relief programs,” they argued, suggesting that “the indicative list of COVID-19 related goods, established by the World Customs Organization and World Health Organization could be helpful in the determination of the product scope.”

 


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