17th Sep 2021

Waiving vaccine patent 'not enough', WTO chief tells MEPs

  • WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala pointed out that 80 percent of production, and exports, is from only 10 countries (Photo: European Parliament)

Increasing manufacturing capacity globally for vaccines is key, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) told MEPs on Thursday (20 May), adding that waiving intellectual property rights is not enough.

The EU has come under pressure to agree to waive patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines, after a proposal on the issue was backed by the US.

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"Getting the intellectual property rights waiver [for vaccines] will not be enough," Okonjo-Iweala said.

A panel on intellectual property is expected to discuss the issue next month at the WTO, where the majority of members are said to be in favour of waiving the rights.

EU leaders earlier this month said they are open to discussions but warned that patent waiver alone will not solve vaccine scarcity in the world in the short and medium term.

Some leaders, such as French president Emmanuel Macron, pointed out that the US could do more if it were to lift its export ban on vaccines.

At the Porto summit earlier in May, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said out of the 400 million vaccine doses that have been produced in Europe, 50 percent of them have been exported, to 90 different countries around the world.

Okonjo-Iweala said that concrete texts on the issue are being prepared by the end of the month.

"We cannot move forward just talking, we have to sit down to agree, the sooner the better," the WTO director-general said, adding that she needs to be an honest broker on the issue among members.

"When we sit at the table we can hammer out an agreement that gives flexibility and automaticity of access to developing countries to manufacture, and the same time protect research and innovation," Okonjo-Iweala said.

"To have solved the problem, the unacceptable problem of inadequate access to vaccines, we have to be holistic, it is not one or the other," she told the European parliament's trade committee.

Okonjo-Iweala argued for decentralised manufacturing, saying that the world normally has the capacity to produce five billion vaccines: 3.5 billion for children, 1.5 billion for flu.

"Now we require twice and three times that," she said, adding that 80 percent of production and exports comes from10 countries, in North America, in Europe, and in South Asia.

"But this doesn't work when it is about saving lives," the director-general said, arguing that manufacturing needs to be decentralised.

The WTO chief said that Africa, with 1.5 billion people, has 0.17 percent of manufacturing capacity, imports 99 percent of its vaccines, and 99 percent of its pharmaceuticals. Latin America has a two-percent manufacturing capacity.

"This has to change," she argued.

The EU Commission on Wednesday presented an alternative to IP waiver focused on export restrictions, pledges from vaccine developers and the flexibility of existing WTO rules.

Trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told MEPs that the single most effective way to achieve universal access was to ramp up production, share more vaccines and make them affordable.

Under the EU plan, export restrictions should be kept to a minimum, and vaccine producers and developers should also make concrete pledges to increase supply to vulnerable developing countries, at production costs.

The EU would also want to make use of existing WTO rules allowing countries to grant licences to manufacturers, even without the consent of the patent-holder.

If such a manufacturer provided vaccines at cost price, the rights-holder should not make a profit out of any payment due, Reuters reported.

The EU will present its plans to the WTO in June.

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Workers such as United Nurses Association of India are furious that the EU is undermining their best efforts and exacerbating the crisis by continuing to put big-pharma profits ahead of Covid vaccine patent-waivers. Is this what solidarity looks like?

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MEPs have backed a motion demanding the temporality lifting of intellectual properties rights of Covid-19 vaccines - a symbolic move that puts pressure on the European Commission to change its position on the issue of global access to vaccines.

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