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OVER TO THE WTO

Ramesh Shankar
Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary decisions that may be written in golden letters in the history of mankind. In such a rather out of the box decision on May 6 this year, the US President Joe Biden supported India’s plea for waiver of intellectual property (IP) protections for Covid-19 vaccines. During the last more than seven months, both India and South Africa have been advocating for this IP waiver as one vital tool to address the concerns on availability of Covid-19 vaccines. It is a fact that in our fierce fight against the corona pandemic, there is a growing mismatch between demand and supply of vaccines in the world. And India is no exception. Acute shortage of vaccines has put thousands of lives including the doctors, healthcare workers and other essential workers at serious risk and has further exacerbated the kind of healthcare crisis the modern world has never witnessed before. In such a background, the Biden-Harris Administration’s bold decision of temporary waiver of IP protections for Covid-19 vaccines will definitely prove to be the proverbial light at the end of a long dark tunnel for India, and for that matter the entire world. The US government’s decision is an important step towards global support for a World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver on IP. This could provide countries with new options to address the limitations of existing WTO rules and remove legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede production and supply of Covid-19 vaccines.

Following the US decision, France and New Zealand have pledged their support to the IP waiver on Covid-19 vaccine. The European Union and several wealthy countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Spain have said that it would be open to discussions and negotiations at the WTO.  Earlier, there was stiff opposition to the Indian proposal for waiver of IP rights and patents for Covid-19 medical products. By this IP waiver, under certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement, India wanted to ensure rapid access to affordable medical products like diagnostic kits, PPEs, ventilators, vaccines and other medicines to prevent, contain and treat coronavirus disease. But, the opponents, mostly developed countries, argued that suspending key protections of the TRIPS Agreement would send the wrong message to industry investors. They insisted that production of Covid-19 vaccines is complex and simply cannot be ramped up by easing intellectual property and lifting protections could hurt future innovation. Months of advocacy by India, South Africa and civil society has finally borne fruit as the US and several other countries have ultimately understood the need for putting people’s health before pharmaceutical profits. There is finally a real hope of a breakthrough that can unlock the potential of vaccine production across the developing world. Once accepted in the WTO and implemented, the temporary IP waiver would go a long way to enable scaling up of manufacturing and ensuring timely availability of affordable Covid-19 vaccines across the world. The US has taken a sensible decision at the right time. Now, the ball is in WTO’s court where such waivers are part of its toolbox. And there can be no better time to use them than during a once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken more than three million lives, infected around 44 crore people and devastated economies across the globe.

 

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