WTO’s April 14th virtual meeting to review COVID-19 vaccine availability

WTO’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had indicated when she took office that she would be gathering industry, multilateral groups, and some governments to look at how vaccine production could be expanded and the role the WTO could play in that effort. At the same time, with the proposal from India and South Africa for waiver from most TRIPS obligations on medical products relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic still under consideration in the TRIPS Council, with opposition from a number of important Members, DG Okonjo-Iweala has been seeking an approach that in fact expands production in developing and least developed countries and greater distribution to low- and middle-income countries. without needing an all or nothing resolution to the proposed waiver.

I have previously reviewed the issue of vaccine availability and prior DG Okonjo-Iweala statements in a number of posts. See, e.g., April 13, 2021, April 15, 2021 — U.S and Gavi co-host event for additional funding for COVAX amid concerns about two workhorse vaccines for COVAX, ttps://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/04/13/april-15-2021-u-s-and-gavi-co-host-event-for-additional-funding-for-covax-amid-concerns-about-two-workhorse-vaccines-for-covax/; April 8, 2021, COVAX delivers COVID-19 vaccines to 100th country; India surge in infections likely to reduce product availability for COVAX through May and likely longer, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/04/08/covax-delivers-covid-19-vaccines-to-100th-country-india-surge-in-infections-likely-to-reduce-product-availability-for-covax-through-may-and-likely-longer/; April 2, 2021, Global vaccinations against COVID-19; developments and challenges in the roll-out for many countries, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/04/02/global-vaccinations-against-covid-19-developments-and-challenges-in-the-roll-out-for-many-countries/; March 25, 2021, Global vaccinations for COVID-19 — continued supply chain and production issues and a new wave of infections in many countries delay greater ramp up for some until late in the second quarter of 2021, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/25/global-vaccinations-for-covid-19-continued-supply-chain-and-production-issues-and-a-new-wave-of-infections-in-many-countries-delay-greater-ramp-up-for-some-until-late-in-the-second-quarter-of-2021/; March 12, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines – U.S., Japan, India and Australia agree to one billion doses for Indo-Pacific countries, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/covid-19-vaccines-u-s-japan-india-and-australia-agree-to-one-billion-doses-for-indo-pacific-countries/; March 12, 2021, The 8-9 March  “Global C19 Vaccine Supply Chain and Manufacturing Summit” – efforts to ramp-up production, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/the-8-9-march-global-c19-vaccine-supply-chain-and-manufacturing-summit-efforts-to-ramp-up-production/; March 5, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines — France supports Italy’s blockage of a shipment to Australia; while Australia has asked the EU to permit the shipment, Australia will have its own production of AstraZeneca product by the end of March, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/05/covid-19-vaccines-france-supports-italys-blockage-of-a-shipment-to-australia-while-australia-has-asked-the-eu-to-permit-the-shipment-australia-will-have-its-own-production-of-astrazeneca-produc/; March 4, 2021, Italy blocks exports of COVID-19 vaccines to Australia, first blockage of export authorization by the EU or its member states, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/04/italy-blocks-exports-of-covid-19-vaccines-to-australia-first-blockage-of-export-authorization-by-the-eu-or-its-member-states/; March 4, 2021, The EU’s response to challenges to its actions on COVID-19 vaccine exports, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/04/the-eus-response-to-challenges-to-its-actions-on-covid-19-vaccine-exports/; March 3, 2021, WTO Director-General opinion piece in the Financial Times and recent actions by the U.S., https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/03/wto-director-general-opinion-piece-in-the-financial-times-and-recent-actions-by-the-u-s/; 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/.

“COVID-19 and Vaccine Equity: What Can the WTO Contribute?”

While the virtual meeting convened by DG Okonjo-Iweala was conducted under Chatham House rules, a number of participants made their prepared comments public and there was some press coverage.

DG Okonjo-Iweala provided a wrap-up at the end of the session which was posted on the WTO website. See WTO news, DG Okonjo-Iweala calls for follow-up action after WTO vaccine equity event, April 14, 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/dgno_14apr21_e.htm (“Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala today (14 April) called on WTO members, vaccine manufacturers and international organizations to act to address trade-related obstacles to the scale-up of COVID-19 vaccine production to save lives, hasten the end of the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery.”). DG Okonjo-Iweala’s summary comments are copied below. See WTO speeches, Chair Summary following “COVID-19 and Vaccine Equity: What Can the WTO Contribute?”, April 14, 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spno_e/spno7_e.htm.

“One thing that came out of today’s discussions is that it was only through working together across borders that scientists developed safe and effective vaccines in record time. And it is only by working together, across borders, that we’ll be able to solve the problems [of vaccine scarcity and equitable access] discussed today. This is a problem of the global commons, and we have to solve it together.

“Our purpose today was to contribute to efforts to increase vaccine production and broaden access, starting with the immediate term.

“Specifically we had three goals:

“The first was to pinpoint the obstacles, particularly the trade-related obstacles, to ramping up production, and to equitably distributing and administering vaccines — and we looked at how the WTO could contribute to these solutions.

“The second was to bring together people who are able to increase and to scale up manufacturing, people in a position to share technology and knowhow, and people willing to finance additional manufacturing capacity.

“And third, to think about the road ahead, including on the TRIPS waiver and incentives for research and development, so that we get the medical technologies we need, and no country is left at the back of the line waiting. If there is one refrain we heard continuously from everyone today it is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

“We heard first-hand from governments and vaccine manufacturers from developed, developing, and least developed countries, as well as a wide range of other stakeholders from international organizations, civil society and development finance institutions.

“And we heard good news: that supplies are ramping up and companies are learning by doing, that there have been major gains in productivity, and that there is still capacity. We also heard that there is a willingness to finance investment in vaccine manufacturing both in the short- and long-term, and there are ideas and energy to do things differently.

“However, we heard from many that we need to do more. It hasn’t really been business as usual, so we may need to move on to ‘business unusual’ to solve the problems before us.

“In the discussions today we heard a great deal of agreement. We agree that it’s not acceptable for people and countries to have to wait indefinitely for vaccines. We do not want to repeat experiences of the past.

“We heard a consensus on the urgent need to scale up production and vaccinate everyone, because every day the shortage continues, scope for dangerous new variants will increase, and the number of prevent preventable deaths will grow. The economic impact of these delays can and has been quantified by many institutions, including the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.

“It was agreed that production capacity needs to be expanded, particularly in developing and least developed countries and emerging markets. And that vaccine distribution needs to be more effective and more equitable.

“We heard that open cross-border trade in raw materials, and other inputs, was essential for maintaining and scaling up production, and that supply chains in these inputs must be maintained.

“Also widely shared was the view that innovation, research and development will be vital for dealing with COVID-19 variants and in other health crises.

“We had useful exchanges on issues where some perspectives were different, such as on the future shape of vaccine supply chains, on the appropriate role for intellectual property protections, on issues of vaccine contract transparency — which was pointed to by many as an important factor in appropriate pricing and distribution and a critical part of access and equity.

“Concerns expressed by some about cross-border supply chain operations, including export restrictions and shortages of skilled personnel reinforced my view, and hopefully that of members, that the WTO must and can play a central part in the response to this crisis.

“Various perspectives about the TRIPS Agreement, and whether the existing flexibilities are enough to address developing country needs were put on the table. These echoed the discussions on the waiver proposal going on in the TRIPS Council, and I want to reiterate that today is a way of contributing to that discussion.

“I agree with the view that the WTO is a logical forum for finding a way forward on these issues, and I hope that the ideas raised here will contribute to convergence in the TRIPS Council on meaningful results that can contribute to the goals that we have.

“I hope that the discussion today, listening to each other, seeing that we all share a common goal, and that we may not be so far apart, will lead to the willingness to come to the middle,  and work out something that will be acceptable to all.

“Participants were generally of the view that ramping up vaccine manufacturing capacity is a complex process. It requires large, long-term investment and sustainable business models. It relies on open international supply lines for ingredients and equipment. We heard how shortages of even a single piece of equipment, filters, can halt operations at a production facility. Vaccine manufacturing necessitates collaboration, and the movement of skilled labour, to facilitate transfer of technology and knowhow.

“Safety is a paramount consideration, and quality is the other part of safety. This demands effective regulatory capacity and stringent compliance, down to the factory floor. Indeed we heard this is a big risk companies factor in when making decisions as to where to produce, and how to produce. I hope that they’ve heard sufficient encouragement today, to enable us to move towards leveraging the existing capacities in emerging markets and developing countries mentioned repeatedly today, which could actually help to take care of the shortages talked about.

“Turning capacity around to produce COVID-19 vaccines is not only about the physical space alone. We heard repeatedly that it requires transfer of technology and knowhow, together with investment and support for quality assurance.

“We also learned about how existing licensing arrangements have operated — including an example of how skills transfer was carried out in a few as six months. We also heard calls for support to build human capital, and to help build regulatory cooperation.

“Some participants suggested more active matchmaking to connect companies that have the investment capacity with those that have potential for expanding production capacity, even in the short term.

“We also heard about ongoing efforts to build new manufacturing capacity, and the lessons that can be learned from that.

“We also began to see the aspects of the collaboration we need to make things happen. We had many international organizations show they are willing to work together to bring to fruition things like putting in place technical expertise, helping with capacity building and quality control, and investing directly in production.

“I believe that today’s exchanges have advanced our understanding of the challenges we face for scaling up vaccine production, and that working together is the only way ahead.

“In the coming weeks and months, we expect concrete follow-up action. These issues are not easy, but the political will and engagement from the private sector displayed today, suggests it is possible.

“As we move forward, I expect:

“- From WTO members:

“- Action to further reduce export restrictions and supply chain barriers, and to work with other organizations to facilitate logistics and customs procedures.  We are monitoring this as part of our regular work, and we’ll continue doing so to increase supplies and maintain robust supply chains. Trade has been underlined as a critical factor in production; it is incumbent upon WTO members to act.

‘- Advance negotiations in the TRIPS Council on the waiver proposal and incentives for research and innovation. I hope that the ideas and the open dialogue heard will move us closer to agreement. 

‘- For vaccine manufacturers:

‘- Concrete moves to scale up vaccine manufacturing, both short-term turnaround of existing capacities, milking whatever productivity gains we can from current facilities, and taking steps to invest.

“- Increased technology and knowhow transfer, which many participants stressed would be necessary to make additional production work.

“- We need transparency in contract agreements and product pricing. We hope to continue this dialogue and to help monitoring steps in that direction.

“- For international organisations and financial institutions:

“- We noted your willingness to finance, both existing and new capacity, your willingness to work on capacity building for regulatory issues, not just for vaccines, but also for therapeutics and diagnostics, which are equally important.

“I trust that we have found a good basis to deliver concrete action, and to continue this discussion that we’ve had today.

“This should not be a one-off, we should continue to talk to each other, and make sure that we can deliver.

“I hope that besides concrete action to increase capacity, this discussion has given us elements of a framework on trade and health that we can put together at the WTO, and that can be put before ministers at the 12th Ministerial Conference in mid-December. Such a framework should provide for trade-related preparedness to handle this pandemic, and the next one.”

Press accounts indicate that the United States, European Union, India and South Africa participated. Statements from USTR Katherine Tai and Executive Vice President Dombrovskis are available from government websites. See USTR press release, Ambassador Katherine Tai’s remarks at a WTO virtual conference on Covid-19 vaccine equity, April 14, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/april/ambassador-katherine-tais-remarks-wto-virtual-conference-covid-19-vaccine-equity; European Commission press release, Speech by Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis at the WTO Webinar “Covid and Vaccine Equity,” 14 April 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/dombrovskis/announcements/speech-executive-vice-president-valdis-dombrovskis-wto-webinar-covid-and-vaccine-equity_en.

The Biden Administration has been meeting with various interest groups on the TRIPS wavier proposal (both pro and con) and is receiving pressure from some Members of Congress and prior government officials to agree to a waiver. Ambassador Tai’s statement stresses the need for equity in vaccine availability. “These losses have been disproportionately borne by vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities within our countries. And the significant inequities we are seeing in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries are completely unacceptable. Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership, communication, and creativity. Extraordinary crises challenge all of us to break out of our comfortable molds, our in-the-box thinking, our instinctive habits. This is not just a challenge for governments. This challenge applies equally to the industry responsible for developing and manufacturing the vaccines. The desperate needs that our people face in the current pandemic provide these companies with an opportunity to be the heroes they claim to be – and can be. As governments and leaders of international institutions, the highest standards of courage and sacrifice are demanded of us in times of crisis. The same needs to be demanded of industry.”

The EU statement is consistent with their views that equity is necessary and that the EU has been working to contribute to that result through production ramp up and large exports in fact, including to the COVAX facility. The EU summed up what the WTO should be doing. “To sum up, the WTO can support vaccine equity through five sets of actions:
Promoting best practices in terms of trade facilitation and regulatory cooperation to maintain open supply chains; Facilitating cooperation with the private sector, both to ramp up production in the short term, and to enhance manufacturing in global regions with under-capacity, focusing in particular on Africa; Supporting Members’ use of the available TRIPs flexibilities; Continuing to seek joint approaches with the World Health Organisation and the World
Intellectual Property Organisation; and Ensuring transparency and effective monitoring of any temporary export restriction, as proposed by the Ottawa Group.”

I have not found statements from either India or South Africa but at least one publication indicated they stressed the need for a TRIPS waiver for all Members. See Washington Trade Daily, WTO’s Role in Vaccine Equity, April 15, 2021, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/63ac7508-8034-44b3-8c3c-045c1bedec43.pdf.

The World Health Organization also participated and the Director-General’s statement is available from the WHO website. See WHO press release, COVID-19 and vaccine equity panel: what can the World Trade Organization contribute?, 14 April 2021, https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/covid-19-and-vaccine-equity-panel-what-can-the-world-trade-organization-contribute (“COVAX was created, as you know, almost a year ago to avoid the same thing happening again. And although COVAX has distributed almost 40 million doses of vaccine to 110 countries and economies, vaccine nationalism, vaccine diplomacy and severe supply constraints have so far prevented COVAX from realizing its full potential. Global manufacturing capacity and supply chains have not been sufficient to deliver vaccines quickly and equitably where they are needed most.  More funding is needed, but that’s only part of the solution. Money doesn’t help if there are no vaccines to buy. We need to dramatically scale up the number of vaccines being produced. To address this challenge, WHO and our partners have established a COVAX manufacturing task force, to increase supply in the short term, but also to build a platform for sustainable vaccine manufacturing to support regional health security. We need to go beyond the traditional modus operandi to provide sustainable and effective solutions to address this extraordinary crisis. Some manufacturers have begun sharing the know-how and technologies to produce more vaccines, but only under restrictive conditions, on a very limited basis. The current company-controlled production sharing agreements are not coming close to meeting the overwhelming public health and socio-economic needs for effective, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, as well as therapeutics and other critical health technologies.  This is an unprecedented emergency that demands unprecedented measures.”).

One of the private sector participants, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) included its statement on the IFPMA website. See IFPMA, IFPMA statement at WTO event “COVID-19 and Vaccine Equity: What can the WTO Contribute”, 14 April 2021, https://www.ifpma.org/resource-centre/ifpma-statement-at-wto-event-covid-19-and-vaccine-equity-what-can-the-wto-contribute/. The IFPMA statement is embedded below but highlights the extraordinary effort of the private sector in ramping up production which is expected to be 10 billion doses by the end of 2021 with some 272 partnerships entered into and 200 technology transfer agreements.


Rising Infections; dramatically ramped up production

Last Thursday’s summary from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows the world going through a massive ramp up of new infections such that week 14 of 2021 is the second highest week during the pandemic of new infections with the vast majority of the cases and increase in Asia, the Americas and Europe. See ECDC, COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 14, updated 15April 2021, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases.

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of week 14 2021

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of week 14 2021
“Distribution of cases of COVID-19 by continent (according to the applied case definition and testing strategies in the affected countries)

“Cases reported in accordance with the applied case definition and testing strategies in the affected countries.”

The ECDC data show Africa as accounting for 3.18% of total infections during the pandemic, Asia accounting for 19.50% (India is 9.91%; China is 0.07%), the Americas for 43.18% (United States 22.91% and Brazil 9.90%), Europe 34.08% (the Eu is 20.79%, the UK is 3.20%, Russia is 3.4%), and Oceania 0.05%.

At the same time as new infections are ramping up, vaccinations are also increasing sharply. Bloomberg data through April 17, 2021 shows a global total of 884 million vaccinations having been given globally. See Bloomberg, More Than 884 Million Shots Given: Covid-19 Tracker, updated April 17, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/.

While there are countries who have fewer or more vaccinations as a percent of the global total than their share of infections, considering distribution equity from that vantage point has some surprising results.

Country Percent of infections Percent of vaccinations

United States 22.91% 23.16%

European Union 20.79% 12.36%

United Kingdom 3.20% 4.76%

Japan 0.37% 0.21%

Republic of Korea 0.08% 0.17%

India 9.91% 13.85%

China 0.07% 21.18%

South Africa 1.14% 0.33%

Brazil 9.90% 3.92%

The pharmaceutical industry is projecting that 10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine will ship in 2021. That means that in the next eight and a half months, some nine billion doses will ship. If 10 billion doses are shipped in 2021, that is sufficient to fully vaccinate 5-6 billion people in 2021 (depending on number of doses that are for single shot vaccines). That is sufficient doses to vaccinate 63.3-75.9% of the current estimate of the global population (7.9 billion). See Worldometer, Current World Population, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/#:~:text=The%20current%20world%20population%20is,currently%20living)%20of%20the%20world./ With the continued efforts to expand production and approve additional vaccines, 10 billion doses may be exceeded in fact by the end of the year.

This suggests, just as the COVAX and UNICEF distribution plans indicate, that low- and middle-income countries will see a large increase in supplies in the second half of 2021, just as will be true for the rest of the world.

The U.S.-Gavi event on April 15 talked about increasing funding for COVAX to go from 20% to 30% of populations the COVAX facility is serving. See U.S. Department of State, Video Remarks of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Launch of GAVI’s COVAX Commitment, April 15, 2021, https://www.state.gov/launch-of-gavis-covax-commitment/. Moreover, the World Bank is committing billions to increases purchases of vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. And many countries are executing their own contracts with vaccine producers.

If there are issues besides assistance in resolving bottlenecks that would appear to be important to speeding up distribution and ensuring access by all, it would be to ensure that all countries with vaccine supplies greater than their internal needs, work to get those vaccines distributed to other countries later this year as their internal needs clarify.

Moreover, there are very exciting developments on the vaccine front with the start up of trials in a number of developing countries of a new vaccine where the potential exists for low costs with a vaccine that can be produced locally by many countries based on technology similar to what is already used for other vaccines. See New York Times, Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Coronavirus Vaccine, A new formulation entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic, April 5, 2021, updated April 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/05/health/hexapro-mclellan-vaccine.html.

All to say, there is considerable reason for optimism with the current efforts and progress. Efforts by governments, multilateral institutions, industry and others are helping identify challenges both to production and distribution but also to the needs for a speedy recovery once the pandemic is brought under control. While everyone needs to continue to focus on resolving bottlenecks, securing cooperation to ensure all are reached, and addressing developments as they arise, 2021 is not a repeat of the HIV situation.

The WTO has an important role in monitoring trade restrictions and looking forward to what actions Members are willing to take to advance trade and health needs and help ensure a next pandemic is handled more quickly than the COVID-19 has been. The effort to obtain a waiver from TRIPS obligations is, in this writer’s view, missing where the challenges are and seeking an outcome that will not advance improved vaccinations in 2021. While it is common for countries to continue to fight yesterday’s problems instead of addressing the current challenges, such an approach will not secure equitable and affordable access to vaccines in 2021-2022.

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