India must negotiate with caution

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on May 06, 2021

Negotiators must ensure that the scope, coverage, duration do not get diluted

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s statement supporting waiver of intellectual property (IP) protection for Covid-19 vaccines is a big boost to India and South Africa’s efforts to get their proposal accepted at the WTO. However, India has to negotiate with caution in the days ahead. “...We welcome US government supporting this initiative and joining 120 other countries working towards affordable Covid-19 vaccines,” Commerce & Industry Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted on Thursday.

“We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO,” as per an official statement from the Commerce & Industry Ministry.

Important details that will ensure the effectiveness of the waiver, such as its scope, coverage and duration, are yet to be worked out, and it has to be seen to what extent other members such as Japan and the EU (which now says it is ready for discussions on vaccines) fall in line with the US.

“It is indeed welcome that the US has agreed to negotiate on the waiver of IP for vaccines. But the India and South African proposal on waiver is not just about vaccines, but medical products that include crucial medicines. India will need to carefully prepare its arguments and negotiate for a complete waiver once all members agree to a text-based proposal,” an official source told BusinessLine.

The IP waiver proposal was initially submitted by South Africa and India on October 2, and has since been co-sponsored by 60 members, including the African Group and the LDC Group. It calls for a temporary waiver of certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of Covid-19.

To avoid barriers

The objective, according to the proponents, is to avoid barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products, including vaccines and essential medicines.

“The US talks about text-based negotiations and what is important here are the nitty-gritties, which will be crucial for the success of the proposal,” said Abhijit Das, Head and Professor, Centre for WTO Studies.

The nitty-gritties of the negotiations will include the products the waiver will cover such as vaccines, medicines and devices, the IPs it will include such as patents, copy right and trade secrets, and the duration it will last, said Das. Pharmaceutical giants will try to ensure that little ground is ceded by developed countries as possible, he cautioned

“The USTR’s support for the waiver is encouraging, but we have to wait and watch what the final outcome is. The USTR supports waiver of IPs only for vaccines. It doesn’t talk about IP waiver for crucial medicines such as Remdesivir, which is in acute shortage as it is patented. However, we have managed to get a foot inside the door, and we have to make all efforts to get good results quickly,” said Biswajit Dhar, Professor, JNU. Safeguards

Drawing attention to the WTO’s Doha Declaration and the special provision on TRIPS and public health that allowed flexibilities to countries with no production capacities, Dhar said that it had so many safeguards that it has been rarely used.

“We have to put our best foot forward in the negotiations and see to it that it is not protracted. It has to be ensured that the waiver doesn’t have conditions attached and hindrances to access to medicines and medical products get removed on the ground,” Dhar added.

The US decision to support the waiver is expected to bring other WTO members who are opposed to the text-based negotiations to the table, pointed out KM Gopakumar, Senior Researcher, Third World Network.

The possible ripple effect of US’ position already became visible on Thursday, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating the EU is ready to discuss patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.

Published on May 06, 2021

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