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WTO members ready for text-based negotiations

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on June 09, 2021

India, South Africa may need to lower ambitions as the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand call for compromise

In a major breakthrough in efforts by India and South Africa to get a temporary waiver on Intellectual Property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products at the WTO, member countries have agreed to engage in text-based negotiations to reach an agreement by next month.

At the formal meeting of the TRIPS Council on June 8-9 in Geneva, members decided that they would begin a text-based process to address proposals to effectively deal with Covid-19 by providing equitable access to vaccines and other medical products for all countries, including the resource-poor, a Geneva-based official told BusinessLine.

“It has been decided that all efforts will be made to reach a consensus on the issue by July 21-22 when the General Council meets,” said the official.

In a joint proposal submitted by India and South Africa to the WTO on October 2 2020, and revised last month, the two proposed a temporary waiver of some TRIPS obligations for Covid-19 vaccine and other health products and technologies, including diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices, personal protective equipment, their materials or components, and their methods and means of manufacture for the prevention, treatment or containment of the virus, for a minimum of three years.

The proposal was co-sponsored by 68 members, including the African group and the least developed countries, but many developed nations were not willing to play along till the Joe Biden administration decided to support the negotiations for a waiver for vaccines last month, following which many others fell in step.

No easy task

However, the negotiations may not be easy. “The agreement by all members to start text-based negotiations on a TRIPS waiver is a major victory for India and South Africa, but developed nations, under pressure from pharmaceutical lobbies, will not be willing to cede much ground,” said a Delhi-based trade expert.

This would mean that there may be pressure on India and South Africa to agree to a TRIPS waiver for a limited range of products, mainly vaccines, and also agree to safeguards.

Countries that gave their consent for the negotiations but do not agree totally with the India-South Africa proposal such as the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ukraine, Brazil, Norway, China and Chinese Taipei, underlined that the negotiations would require a great deal of compromise,said the Geneva-based official.

EU, UK stay opposed

The EU, the UK, Switzerland and Korea reiterated their opposition to waiving TRIPS provisions, but said they were ready to engage in discussions.

All members, however, agreed on the urgency of the negotiations and the chair stated that attempts will be made to agree on a report for the next General Council meeting on July 21-22, which should also be a natural target date for reaching an understanding on the matter.

Under text-based negotiations, an agreement is firmed up around draft texts floated by the chair of the particular committee dealing with the subject. The draft is based on discussions amongst members and is fine-tuned till all members are in agreement with it.

Published on June 09, 2021

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