WTO members may seek more time to decide on TRIPS waiver to fight Covid-19

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on December 04, 2020

90-day timeline for decision on the India-South Africa proposal to lapse on December 31, but more deliberations could be needed, say officials

With no consensus yet on the demand for a temporary waiver of TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) obligations by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, countries are likely to ask the body’s General Council for more time to sort the matter out, a Geneva-based trade official said.

India, at the recent informal meeting of the TRIPS Council, urged countries to work towards early implementation of the proposal and cautioned that while some may think that pre-ordering large quantities of the vaccines would keep them safe, the reality was that if the pandemic continued in any one country, it would affect the societies and economies of all nations, the official told BusinessLine.

The WTO has time till December 31 to decide on the fate of the India-South Africa proposal, as rules demand that reports on waivers related to agreements need to be readied by the Ministerial Conference or the General Council within 90 days of initial submission.

Need for extension

India and South Africa had submitted to the TRIPS Council on October 2 their proposal advocating a temporary waiver on application of some provisions of the TRIPS Agreement. The waiver is aimed at prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19 by removing barriers for accessing affordable medical products — including vaccines and medicines — by all countries, including those with insufficient production capacities.

“At the recent informal meeting of the TRIPS Council, it was acknowledged that it might be difficult to reach a consensus on the matter of the TRIPS waiver in a short time, and many members were of the view that the General Council should be requested for more time,” the official said.

A formal meeting of the TRIPS Council is scheduled on December 10 where members will take a important decision on what they would be communicating to the General Council when it meets on December 16-17.

“A consensus is emerging amongst members to ask the General Council for some more time to sort the existing differences on the issue of a TRIPS waiver,” the official said.

Medical IP issue

At the informal meeting, South Africa presented a paper that had examples of IP creating problems in access to medical products. It included barriers related to trade secrets, industrial designs and know-how. It also highlighted disputes over Covid-19 vaccine patents and some past experiences on problems with distribution of these vaccines. It also talked about political pressure from other members on countries that have tried to invoke flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement which allow countries to produce generic copies of patented medicines at the time of health emergencies.

Endorsing the India-South Africa proposal, Tanzania said that the African Group could decide to co-sponsor the proposal which already has four co-sponsors including Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique and Pakistan.

Japan, the EU and the US opposed the waiver, with the EU arguing that it was unnecessary and pointed out that the expansion of production is already taking place with AstraZeneca’s licensing to India while other companies were also likely to grant licenses.

A joint communication was submitted by Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico pointing out that more efforts were needed to identify specific and concrete IP-related challenges, if any, being faced by WTO members in addressing Covid-19.

Published on December 04, 2020

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