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Science has delivered, will the WTO deliver?
TRIPS waiver proposal from India, South Africa and other members
By Brajendra Navnit, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to WTO
A proposal by India, South Africa and eight other countries calls on the
World Trade Organisation (WTO) to exempt member countries from enforcing
some patents, and other Intellectual Property (IP) rights under the organization’s
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as
TRIPS, for a limited period of time. It is to ensure that IPRs do not restrict the
rapid scaling- up of manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. While
a few members have raised concerns about the proposal, a large proportion of the
WTO membership supports the proposal. It has also received the backing of
various international organizations, multilateral agencies and global civil society.
Unprecedented times call for unorthodox measures. We saw this in the
efficacy of strict lockdowns for a limited period, as a policy intervention, in
curtailing the spread of the pandemic. International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its
October 2020 edition of World Economic Outlook states “…However, the risk of
worse growth outcomes than projected remains sizable. If the virus resurges,
progress on treatments and vaccines is slower than anticipated, or countries’
access to them remains unequal, economic activity could be lower than expected,
with renewed social distancing and tighter lockdowns”. The situation appears to
be grimmer than predicted, we have already lost 7% of economic output from the
baseline scenario projected in 2019. It translates to a loss of more than USD 6
trillion of global GDP. Even a 1% improvement in global GDP from the baseline
scenario will add more than USD 800 billion in global output, offsetting the loss
certainly of a much lower order to a sector of economy on account of the Waiver.
Merely a signal to ensure timely and affordable access to vaccines and
treatments will work as a big confidence booster for demand revival in the
economy. With the emergence of successful vaccines, there appears to be some
hope on the horizon. But how will these be made accessible and affordable to
global population? The fundamental question is whether there will be enough of
Covid-19 vaccines to go around. As things stand, even the most optimistic
scenarios today cannot assure access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics for
the majority of the population, in rich as well as poor countries, by the end of
2021. All the members of the WTO have agreed on one account that there is an
urgent need to scale-up the manufacturing capacity for vaccines and therapeutics
to meet the massive global needs. The TRIPS Waiver Proposal seeks to fulfil this
need by ensuring that IP barriers do not come in the way of such scaling up of
Why existing flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement are not enough
The existing flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement are not adequate as
these were not designed keeping pandemics in mind. Compulsory licenses are
issued on a country by country, case by case and product by product basis, where
every jurisdiction with an IP regime would have to issue separate compulsory
licenses, practically making collaboration among countries extremely onerous.
While we encourage the use of TRIPS flexibilities, the same are time-consuming
and cumbersome to implement. Hence, only their use cannot ensure the timely
access of affordable vaccines and treatments. Similarly, we have not seen a very
encouraging progress on WHO’s Covid19-Technology Access Pool or the CTAP initiative, which encourages voluntary contribution of IP, technology and
data to support the global sharing and scale-up of the manufacturing of COVID19 medical products. Voluntary Licenses, even where they exist, are shrouded in
secrecy. Their terms and conditions are not transparent. Their scope is limited to
specific amounts or for a limited subset of countries, thereby encouraging
nationalism rather than true international collaboration.
Why is there a need to go beyond existing global cooperation initiatives?
Global cooperation initiatives such as the COVAX Mechanism and the
ACT-Accelerator are inadequate to meet the massive global needs of 7.8 billion
people. The ACT-A initiative aims to procure 2 billion doses of vaccines by the
end of next year and distribute them fairly around the world. With a two-dose
regime, however, this will only cover 1 billion people. That means that even if
ACT-A is fully financed and successful, which is not the case presently, there
would not be enough vaccines for the majority of the global population.
During the initial few months of the current pandemic, we have seen that
shelves were emptied by those who had access to masks, PPEs, sanitizers, gloves
and other essential Covid-19 items even without their immediate need. The same
should not happen to vaccines. Eventually, the world was able to ramp up
manufacturing of Covid-19 essentials as there were no IP barriers hindering that.
At present, we need the same pooling of IP rights and know-how for scaling up
the manufacturing of vaccines and treatments, which unfortunately has not been
forthcoming, necessitating the need for the Waiver.
It is the pandemic – an extraordinary, once in a lifetime event – that has
mobilized the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. It is knowledge and skills
held by scientists, researchers, public health experts and universities that have
enabled the cross-country collaborations and enormous public funding that has
facilitated the development of vaccines in record time – and not alone IP!
The TRIPS waiver proposal is a targeted and proportionate response to the
exceptional public health emergency that the world faces today. Such a Waiver
is well-within the provisions of Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement which
established the WTO. It can help in ensuring that human lives are not lost for
want of a timely and affordable access to vaccines. The adoption of the Waiver
will also re-establish WTO’s credibility and show that multilateral trading system
continues to be relevant and can deliver in times of a crisis. Now is the time for
WTO members to act and adopt the Waiver to save lives and help in getting the
economy back on the revival path quickly.
While making the vaccines available was a test of science, making them
accessible and affordable is going to be a test of humanity. History should
remember us for the “AAA rating” i.e. for Availability, Accessibility and
Affordability of Covid19 vaccines and treatments and not for a single “A rating”
for Availability only. Our future generations deserve nothing less