WTO to intensify talks over protections of COVID-19 vaccines

GENEVA — World Trade Organization member states agreed on Wednesday to intensify talks toward improving access to COVID-19 products, as developing nations push for a proposal to ease patent and other legal protections on coronavirus vaccines — and some wealthier countries remain stiffly opposed.

A WTO panel focusing on intellectual property, which includes patents on technological know-how like vaccines and the processes to manufacture them, wrapped up a two-day meeting on Wednesday with an agreement to start a “text-based process” to pull together proposals about improving the fight against COVID-19 through the Geneva-based trade body’s intricate system of rules.

The goal is to help jump-start lagging efforts to get vaccines to developing-world countries that badly need them, according to a Geneva-based trade official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

New, informal talks will start next week among members of the panel, with an eye toward pulling together a report for a meeting of WTO ambassadors on July 21-22.

South Africa and India floated the proposal for a temporary easing of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and tests – known as an “IP waiver” — last fall. While many developed countries with strong pharmaceutical industries hesitated about or were outright opposed that idea, the debate received a jolt last month when the Biden administration announced support for an IP waiver for vaccines alone.

In the two days of talks, South Africa and India laid out a revision of their proposal – now backed by over 60 countries – that insisted on the three-year temporary nature of the waiver for COVID-19 products, the trade official said.

But some countries – notably the European Union’s 27 member states, as well as Britain, Switzerland and Korea – continue to oppose a waiver, the official said, relaying deliberations in the closed-door talks Tuesday and Wednesday.

Countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, China and the United States haven’t rallied fully behind the South African and Indian proposal, and view it as just one part of what they believe should be a more comprehensive approach in getting COVID-19 products to the developing world, the official said.

Even optimistic supporters acknowledge an IP waiver could take months to finalize because of the resistance and WTO rules that require consensus on such decisions — meaning a single country among the 164 members could scuttle any proposal. Even if one were adopted, ratification would also take time.

Advocacy groups, emboldened by the support the U.S. announced last month, have increasingly pushed the plan and insisted it would not be as difficult to carry out as its opponents say.

Pharmaceutical companies insist that an IP waiver could dampen the incentive for researchers and entrepreneurs to innovate, and say vaccine-sharing by rich countries would be a much faster way to get shots to health workers and at-risk populations in the developing world.

The World Health Organization has repeatedly inveighed against unequal access to vaccines, noting that rich countries scooped up supplies well in excess of the need of their own populations while developing countries have obtained only a small fraction of the doses so far distributed and used worldwide.