By TNV Desk
Developing countries including India should ensure that the WTO discussions on the temporary waiver from certain provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19 end up as a “hollow promise”. The talks must also quickly result in greater access to raw materials and greater sharing of technology and know-how at the global level, including on those related to mRNA vaccines, according to experts.
They were of the view that the governments should invest in ramping up production facilities, facilitate the transfer of technology and know-how and support collaborative efforts in R&D and innovation. They also said there was an urgent need for a special global fund to facilitate ramping up of production of affordable medical products (including vaccines, therapeutics, medical masks, diagnostic kits, other personal protective equipment, and ventilators) in developing countries through greater access to raw material and technology in this regard.
This development comes even as most of the 164 WTO members have indicated their support for the proposal of India and South Africa at the global trade body on the temporary waiver from certain TRIPS Agreement provisions. Experts have also urged all the negotiators to expeditiously arrive at a consensus on the issue by addressing it on humanitarian and public health grounds, and not swayed by powerful commercial interests.
“South Africa, India and the African Union (AU) are strongly committed to pushing for the waiver, and we have enormous support of over 100 countries,” Ambassador Xavier Carim, Deputy Director-General, Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, of South Africa, said speaking at a webinar co-hosted by the think tank RIS and the South Centre (the Geneva-based intergovernmental organization of developing nations) on ‘TRIPS waiver: Issues and Challenges.
India and South Africa, the AU, the LDC Group (least developed countries) and 14 other members had on May 25 had, in a revised text (to the one originally submitted by India and South Africa in October 2020), had stated that the revision of the text had reflected “the concern of continuous mutations and the emergence of new variants and consequently the many unknowns with respect to SARS-COV-2 and its variants and the global need for access as well as the importance of diversifying production and supply.”
Amb. Carim said it is important to remove all the legal impediments that come in the way of the transfer of technology and know-how and eliminate the hurdles that are troubling the expansion of production of affordable medical products as well as their swift and easy access. He said this issue was important not just during this pandemic but also from the perspective of preparation for future pandemics. Amb. Carim said despite the complications involved in negotiations at the WTO and for the 164-member body to arrive at a consensus, the proposal (of India and South Africa) has become a catalyst for a greater discussion on the TRIPS Agreement. He added that the talks so far indicate that the TRIPS Agreement, as it stands now, is not suited for the WTO and the member countries to respond as they need to in the event of such an unprecedented global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Carlos Correa, Executive Director, South Centre, said the provisions relating to Compulsory Licensing (CL) were “too cumbersome and time-consuming” to be used quickly in a global health crisis situation like the one now during the COVID-19 pandemic where “urgency is the essence”. CL refers to flexibility in the TRIPS Agreement, and is defined as the act of a government permitting ‘someone else to produce a patented product or process without the patent owner’s consent or plans to use the patent-protected invention itself’. CL is “not workable” and “not the right instrument to address this situation”, Prof. Correa said. He said developing countries are capable of producing mRNA vaccines and diagnostics and therapeutics, but needed access to technology and finance in this regard.
Ms. Leena Menghaney, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Access Campaign, said it was important for the WTO discussions and negotiations to address not only vaccines but also therapeutics, adding that there must be talks with a greater focus on treatment. She said governments must also do more on ensuring transparency and disclosure in their decision-making exercise.
Professor Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General, RIS, said the issue concerns not only the developing countries but also several people in the developed world who are finding it difficult to get timely access to vaccines, medicines, and other medical products at an affordable price. He pointed out that the BRICS bloc (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) had recently supported the proposal originally submitted by India and South Africa, and had called for access and equity in the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Prof. Chaturvedi added that a consensus on the issue will reflect a wider relevance of the WTO and a ‘reformed multilateralism’ approach.
Chairing the session, Ambassador Jayant Dasgupta, Member, RIS Governing Council, and General Body and former Ambassador of India to WTO, said it was important for the WTO member countries to enter into a text-based negotiation process, and if that is not allowed, then it will be difficult to ensure an outcome by the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) that is slated to be held in Geneva from 30 November to 3 December 2021. He said if there is no decision on the issue latest by the MC12, it would be a setback to the WTO as a multilateral forum at this crucial time of a global health crisis. He added that Big Pharma was spending tens of millions of dollars on lobbying efforts to advance their interests and on either preventing the temporary waiver from taking effect or on diluting its effectiveness.
Professor Graham Dutfield, Leeds University, said ‘technology transfer’ is an “unkept promise” of the TRIPS Agreement and is an aspect that has not been taken seriously so far. Referring to a World Bank study, he said it will be economically rational to spend what is required to scale up vaccine delivery than to do nothing and let the global economy suffer. Dr. Siva Thambisetty, Associate Professor, London School of Economics, said the issue under discussion has various implications including from the point of view of competition law and public health. She said along with the temporary waiver, it was important for governments to bring out incentives to start regional collaborative agreements. She added that various departments of the developing country governments must not send confusing signals of supporting and opposing the waiver, and instead must align their internal and external positions. Dr. Krishna Ravi Srinivas, Consultant, RIS, also spoke on the occasion. The webinar is the first of the four-part series on the issue, and, will cover the various regional dimensions of the issue, beginning with those related to Africa (June 12), followed by Latin America (June 19) and southeast Asia (June 26).