WTO Director-General opinion piece in the Financial Times and recent actions by the U.S.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her second day on the job in Geneva had an opinion piece in the Financial Times taking to the public her message to the WTO membership that “WTO members must intensify co-operation”. Financial Times, Opinion, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: WTO members must intensify co-operation, March 2, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/0654600f-92cc-47ad-bfe6-561db88f7019. To a large extent, the opinion piece reflects her opening statement to the General Council on March 1st. See March 1, 2021, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s opening statement at the March 1 General Council meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/01/wto-director-general-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-opening-statement-at-the-march-1-general-council-meeting/. The opinion piece starts with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for equitable and affordable access to vaccines and other medical goods. The Director-General (DG) then goes through the reforms and ongoing negotiations that need to be addressed. The topics include completion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, dispute settlement reform, updating the rule book to include topics like digital trade and other Joint Statement initiatives, restarting negotiations on environmental goods and services, various topics in agriculture (market access, domestic subsidies, removal of export restrictions on farm products purchased for humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme) and rules to address distortions flowing from industrial subsidies to state-owned enterprises.

For this post, I will focus on the access to vaccines issue and recent actions by the United States (but also others) on this topic.

Two paragraphs from the opinion piece lay out the views of the Director-General on access to vaccines. They are copied below.

“However, for the global economy to return to sustained growth, we must intensify co-operation to ensure equitable and affordable access to vaccines, therapetics and diagnostics. The WTO can and must play a more forceful role in encouraging members to minimise or remove export restrictions and prohibitions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment.

WTO members have a further responsibility to reject vaccine nationalism and protectionism while co-operating on promising new treatments and vaccines. We must find a ‘third way’ on intellectual property that preserves the multilateral rules that encourage research and innovation while promoting licensing agreements to help scale-up manufacturing of medical products. Some pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and the Serum Institute of India are already doing this.”

While India and South Africa have sought a waiver for all WTO Members from most TRIPS Agreement obligations during the pandemic, that proposal has not received the backing from various developed countries with pharmaceutical industries, a fact the new DG saw first hand during the General Council meeting of March 1-2 where the TRIPS Council reported that there was not yet agreement on what to recommend on the proposal. Rather through the WHO, GAVI and CEPI and the creation of COVAX to buy vaccines for low- and middle-income countries and others wishing to participate, the expectation has been that some 2 billion doses would be available through COVAX in 2021 starting in February and ramping up, with 1.3 billion doses going to 92 countries needing assistance.

In her opening statement to the General Council, DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala indicated that COVAX would not be enough even though shipments had started. The latest COVAX interim distribution forecast is embedded below and dates from February 3 and shows the number of doses from the AstraZeneca/Serum Institute, from AstraZeneca’s own facilities and from Pfizer/BioNTech.


Press accounts identify Ghana as the first recipient from COVAX, but other countries have already received the vaccines as well. See, e.g., World health Organization, First COVID-19 COVAX vaccine doses administered in Africa, March 1, 2021,https://www.who.int/news/item/01-03-2021-first-covid-19-covax-vaccine-doses-administered-in-africa; Pan American Health Organization, Colombia receives the first vaccines arriving in the Americas through COVAX, March 1, 2021, https://www.paho.org/en/news/1-3-2021-colombia-receives-first-vaccines-arriving-americas-through-covax. The Financial Times vaccine tracker shows that by March 3, 2021, 268.6 million doses had been administered in 128 locations/countries. Financial Times, Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate, March 3, 2021, https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/?areas=gbr&areas=isr&areas=usa&areas=eue&cumulative=1&populationAdjusted=1.

In recent weeks, the United States confirmed it was contributing $4 billion to COVAX ($2 billion immediately and $2 billion over the rest of 2021 and 2022). Other countries and the EU increased contributions as well and some countries have agreed to send some vaccine doses as well. See February 19, 2021, COVAX’s efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines  to low- and middle income countries — additional momentum received from G-7 virtual meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/19/covaxs-efforts-to-distribute-covid-19-vaccines-to-low-and-middle-income-countries-additional-momentum-from-g-7-virtual-meeting/

From a recent WHO release it is clear that GAVI and the other COVAX partners are working at expanding available vaccines and seeking additional funding beyond what has already been provided or promised. Vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and potentially from Novavax were identified. See UN News, Equitable vaccine delivery plan needs more support to succeed: COVAX partners, March 2, 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086142. The release is embedded below.


“intensify co-operation”

There have been efforts at co-operation from the beginning as AstraZeneca’s licensing of its product to India’s Serum Institute demonstrated.

In the United States, President Biden on March 2 announced co-operation between Merck and Johnson & Johnson where Merck will convert two facilities to help in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This has been supported by the United States through use of the Defense Production Act to speed access to equipment needed for the conversion. Merck is a major vaccine producer but doesn’t have a viable COVID-19 vaccine of its own. See NPR, How The White House Got 2 Pharma Rivals To Work Together On COVID-19 Vaccine, March 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/03/973117712/how-the-white-house-got-2-pharma-foes-to-work-together-on-covid-19-vaccine. This is the type of co-operation that DG Okonjo-Iweala referenced in her opinion piece yesterday.

Johnson & Johnson in late February had struck an arrangement with Sanofi in France for similar cooperation at one of Sanofi’s facilities in France. Similarly, Sanofi had earlier struck a deal with Pfizer-BioNTech. See Sanofi, Sanofi to provide manufacturing support to Johnson & Johnson for their COVID-19 vaccine to help address global supply demands, February 22, 2021, https://www.sanofi.com/-/media/Project/One-Sanofi-Web/Websites/Global/Sanofi-COM/Home/media-room/press-releases/2021/20200222-Sanofi-statement-EN.pdf.

The world’s largest vaccine producer, GlaxoSmithKline, has entered an agreement to help produce CureVac produce some of CureVac’s first generation COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and “to jointly develop next generation mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 with the potential for a multi-valent approach to address multiple emerging variants in one vaccine.” See GSK, GSK and CureVac to develop next generation mRNA COVID-19vaccines, 3 February 2021, https://www.gsk.com/en-gb/media/press-releases/gsk-and-curevac-to-develop-next-generation-mrna-covid-19-vaccines/.

There are, of course, other vaccine producers — China has multiple vaccines developed, Russia, India, Cuba has two in development — including companies who do not have a COVID-19 vaccine in development. Thus, additional opportunities for co-operation should exist for those producers as well.


There is understandably great focus within the WTO and its Members in getting past the COVID-19 pandemic and getting economies back on growth paths. The rapid development of vaccines has been critical and has seen extraordinary success in the 15 months since COVID-19 was first identified. The R&D efforts globally have been stunning and have received some government support which has undoubtedly been important particularly in giving pharmaceutical companies an assist in early efforts to ramp up production. There is no question that the R&D efforts would not have occurred at the level that has taken place without strong intellectual property protections.

There has been great efforts by the WHO along with GAVI and CEPI to prepare to be able to get large quantities of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries when vaccines are available including by contracting with multiple companies pursuing a vaccine, reserving capacity, etc. There have been efforts by many countries to help build support for the COVAX approach and to provide funding for the purchase of vaccines for those in need. The effort is having success and can be more successful as 2021 moves into the second quarter and as countries, NGOs, businesses and individuals contribute to see that there is adequate funding for the effort being undertaken.

In addition to COVAX, a number of countries have been sending some of their production of vaccines to other countries. These include China, Russia and India. The U.S. has been in discussions with Japan, Australia and India for helping in getting vaccines to some countries as well. See Financial Times, US and Asia allies plan Covid vaccine strategy to counter China, March 3, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/1dc04520-c2fb-4859-9821-c405f51f8586. These efforts are likely to accelerate as 2021 moves into the 3rd and 4th quarters.

Moreover, many of the major Western pharmaceutical companies engaged in vaccine production have partnered with other companies around the world to expand capacity and production of vaccines that have proven successful. So cooperation is already occurring. The Biden Administration’s efforts in recent weeks with Johnson & Johnson and Merck show that government involvement to encourage cooperation for expanding capacity and production and providing assistance in terms of availability of supplies can be an important assist to ramping up production.

Thus, the track record to date does not support a waiver of most TRIPS obligations as has been requested by the world’s largest producer of vaccines (India) and South Africa. Private companies have worked with partners on developments and in a number of cases on producing vaccines. Early success vaccines like Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have led to significant increases in plans for production by those companies through their own operations or through partnering with others. A number of other vaccines are now approved in major markets or are close to being approved. Significant funding has been provided or promised to make vaccines available to those in need at no cost.

All of the above is “the third way” sought by the new Director-General. It is already working. The WTO should focus its efforts on export restraints on medical goods and collaborate with other multilateral organizations to understand bottlenecks in capacity expansions, supply chain issues, distribution challenges and other aspects to determine if there are matters requiring WTO attention.

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