The WTO General Council, in its meeting this week, discussed India’s proposal to hold a virtual Ministerial Conference on the WTO’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a proposed waiver of the necessary intellectual property protections under the TRIPS agreement.

India’s proposal underlines “the urgency and importance of reaching a meaningful outcome,” General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo said, adding that he would continue to hold consultations with members on the matter.

A common WTO response to Covid-19 “remains an urgent priority for the membership,” Castillo said at a General Council meeting on Monday, called on the request of India, according to a statement issued by the WTO.

Vaccine inequity

It has been over a year since India and South Africa put forward a joint proposal for a temporary waiver to certain intellectual property obligations under the TRIPS Agreement to ensure cheap and effective supplies of Covid-19 medicines and medical provisions are supplied across the world. While no agreement on the matter has yet been reached due to reluctance of several developed country members, the vaccine inequity amongst rich and poor nations has widened.

At the meeting, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala updated members on her efforts to support an informal group of members to narrow difference to reach a meaningful and acceptable outcome on the IP issue that can be built upon by the wider membership to bring a successful conclusion. This group includes India, South Africa, the US and the EU. “Work had continued over the holidays…It is slow but steady progress, and we are hopeful that this approach can help us together find the direction we need,” she said

On easing of IP rules for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics, the EU, too, has put forward a proposal suggesting that the rules around using compulsory licences (CLs), for production of generic versions of patented products at the time of public health emergencies, be eased.

So far, the use of CLs by governments has been low due to multiple reasons, including fear of criticism from the developed world that are home to pharmaceutical multinationals. The EU proposal talks about ways to build in legal certainty and enhance the effectiveness of the system.

The DG called upon WTO members to intensify their efforts over the next few weeks and gather the political will to reach multilateral compromises on intellectual property and other issues. “More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our Twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated,” she emphasised.