WTO efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic — the January 10, 2022 General Council meeting and some current developments of interest

As the world enters the third full year of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the WTO continues to seek both a response to the current challenges and a path forward for future pandemics. India, which along with South Africa (and later support from other countries), has sought since October 2020 a waiver from certain intellectual property protections provided under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”) to address the COVID-19 pandemic, in late December 2021 sent a letter to the General Council Chair of the WTO seeking a virtual ministerial meeting to address the WTO response to the pandemic. This followed the postponement of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference because of restrictions on travel flowing from the increase in COVID cases from the omicron variant.

The WTO press release on the General Council informal meeting held on January 10, 2022 to explore India’s request put a largely positive spin on the meeting, although press accounts suggest that there was push back from many other WTO Members to holding such a virtual Ministerial for various reasons, including lack of progress in developing an agreed text on any TRIPS waiver, need to address other pressing issues and the challenges of doing a Ministerial meeting virtually based on last year’s experience. See WTO news release, General Council discusses India’s call for virtual ministerial meeting on pandemic response, 10 January 2022, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news22_e/gc_10jan22_e.htm (” General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) convened the 10 January meeting in response to India’s recent proposal to hold a virtual Ministerial Conference on the WTO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a proposed waiver of relevant intellectual property protections. At the meeting, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged WTO members to urgently step up their efforts, suggesting that with the requisite political will, members can in the space of the coming weeks reach multilateral compromises on intellectual property and other issues so that the WTO fully contributes to the global response to COVID-19 and future pandemics.”); Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, WTO members reluctant to hold virtual ministerial on TRIPS waiver, January 10, 2022, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/wto-members-reluctant-hold-virtual-ministerial-trips-waiver (“India’s bid to schedule a virtual ministerial meeting focused on the proposed waiver of some intellectual property obligations to fight the pandemic did not win the support of other World Trade Organization members on Monday, as they raised concerns about the virtual format as well as with a lack of progress in the negotiations.”). While the U.S. was reportedly favorably disposed to such a meeting with greater clarifications, the European Union statement noted all of the issues raised in the Inside U.S. Trade article. See also The Hindu, WTO General Council discusses India’s call for holding virtual Ministerial meet on COVID-19 pandemic response, 11 January 2022, https://www.thehindu.com/business/wto-general-council-discusses-indias-call-for-holding-virtual-ministerial-meet-on-covid-19-pandemic-response/article38231454.ece.

While the U.S., under the Biden Administration, has stopped posting on the U.S. Mission website their statements at meetings other than the Dispute Settlement Body (unclear if this is due to a policy change or simply the lack of a Deputy USTR confirmed by the Senate), the EU is posting their statements on their Geneva website. See EU Statement at the General Council Informal Meeting, 10 January 2022, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/109489/eu-statement-general-council-informal-meeting-10-january-2022_en. The entirety of the EU statement is copied below.

“Statement delivered by Ambassador João Aguiar Machado

“For the European Union, the WTO needs to put in place a process that is conducive to progress on all topics of the MC12 agenda.

“Of course, the European Union shares the view that the response to the pandemic is important. However, we need to be careful that a focus on this part of the MC12 agenda must not lead to a loss of momentum on the other key components, which are equally essential to the revitalisation of the organisation – such as the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, agreeing on a way forward on agriculture, and finalising the Ministerial Declaration with a strong commitment on WTO reform – and this, building upon the work done by you, Chairman [Chairman of the General Council], in the run-up to the Ministerial meeting in November. These elements are all essential for the credibility and viability of this organisation. WTO reform is also essential from a health perspective. We need an efficient and effective organisation if we are going to be in a position to act decisively in the case of future pandemics.

“Before any decision to call a virtual Ministerial meeting and topics to be decided, we believe the WTO Director General and the Chair of the General Council should hold consultations with Members, to assess the way forward on all four issues that I referred to.

“As regards trade and health, the aim should be to seek consensus on the way forward both on intellectual property and on the Declaration and Action Plan. As regards the latter, Ambassador Walker’s draft text should be the basis for such consultations. And as regards intellectual property rights, consultations should continue with a view to identifying a text on which the WTO Membership can agree.

“Any virtual Ministerial should take place only once there is a consensus both on intellectual property rights and on the Declaration and Action Plan on the wider pandemic response. Only a comprehensive trade response to the pandemic can make a difference and address the identified bottlenecks as regards the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines such as restricted access to raw materials and other inputs as well as complex supply chains. Agreeing on the comprehensive elements contained in the Walker text will be important not only to tackle Covid-19, but also to address future pandemics.

“If we want to take forward work on all elements of the MC12 agenda, we must have a credible process in place.

“In summary, the European Union is open to consider the proposal by India and to reach an agreement on all aspects of the response to Covid-19 as quickly as possible. However, in the European Union’s view, it is premature to decide at this point in time on either the principle or on the date for such a virtual meeting.”

Thus, while the Director-General is pushing Members for an early resolution of the pandemic response (including any TRIPS waiver), the path forward looks certain to take significantly more time than a few weeks to reach agreement.

The WTO has added a page to its website entitled “Trade and health: WTO response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. The page accessed today states “State of Play – 6 January 2022” — i.e., before the informal General Council meeting on January 10th. However, it provides a good overview of what has been proposed and differences that exist on the waiver issue. See Briefing Note, State of Play 6 January 2022, Trade and health: WTO response to the COVID-19 pandemic, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/minist_e/mc12_e/briefing_notes_e/bftrade_and_health_e.htm. The briefing note is embedded below.


Some current developments of interest

By the end of 2021, COVID vaccines were being produced at a rate of about 1.5 billion doses per month. Additional vaccines are being added which will drive production up even higher during the early months of 2022. See, e.g., BBC, Covovax and Corbevax: What we know about India’s new Covid vaccines, 28 December 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55748124.

Corbevax has received a lot of attention in the media in the last few weeks. The Indian producer has 150 million doses ready for distribution, will be producing 100 million doses per month and plans to export one billion doses to other countries. The developers and the Indian producer are working with the WHO to pursue emergency use authorization through the WHO as well. See, e.g., NPR, A Texas team comes up with a COVID vaccine that could be a global game changer, January 5, 2022, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2022/01/05/1070046189/a-texas-team-comes-up-with-a-covid-vaccine-that-could-be-a-global-game-changer (“A vaccine authorized in December for use in India may help solve one of the most vexing problems in global public health: How to supply lower-income countries with a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective and affordable. The vaccine is called CORBEVAX. It uses old but proven vaccine technology and can be manufactured far more easily than most, if not all, of the COVID-19 vaccines in use today. ‘CORBEVAX is a game changer,’ says Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, D.C. ‘It’s going to enable countries around the world, particularly low-income countries, to be able to produce these vaccines and distribute them in a way that’s going to be affordable, effective and safe.'” “Hotez says that unlike the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and the viral vector vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, protein subunit vaccines like CORBEVAX have a track record. So he and Bottazzi were relatively certain CORBEVAX would be safe and effective. ‘And it’s cheap, a dollar, dollar fifty a dose,’ Hotez says. ‘You’re not going to get less expensive than that.'”); The Times of India, Discussions underway for WHO approval for
Corbevax Covid-19 vaccine, says developer, 31 December 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/discussions-underway-for-who-approval-for-corbevax-covid-19-vaccine-says-developer/articleshow/88604880.cms.

These developments are occurring at a time of record breaking numbers of new infections due to the more highly contagious omicron variant. While many parts of the world are seeing huge surges, Europe and the United States are seeing particularly huge increases. See, e.g., Reuters, U.S. reports 1.35 million COVID-19 cases in a day, shattering global record, January 11, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/us-reports-least-11-mln-covid-cases-day-shattering-global-record-2022-01-11/; WHO, WHO: 7 million new omicron COVID cases in Europe last week, January 11, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/who-7-million-new-omicron-covid-cases-in-europe-last-week/2022/01/11/7e901e28-72cc-11ec-a26d-1c21c16b1c93_story.html.

A few thoughts

When one looks at vaccination distribution in 2021, the concerns about inequity center largely on the vary small volume of vaccines that have gone to low income countries (as classified by the World Bank) and to some lower middle-income countries. See, e.g., December 30, 2021:  COVID-19 and vaccine equity — outlook for 2022, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/12/30/covid-19-and-vaccine-equity-outlook-for-2022/.

The largest volume of vaccines that COVAX had envisioned going to these countries were lower cost ones that would be easier to store, handle and administer than some of the high cost new technology vaccines. Production problems and export bans of the more cost effective and easier to store vaccines in 2021 were the largest reasons of poor distribution of vaccines to lower income countries.

With large volumes of donations committed for 2022 from countries like the U.S. and EU and others and with Indian production both ramping up significantly and exports having resumed and with the availability of low cost options, including new vaccines like Corbevax already approved in India and likely to be produced in various countries around the world at very low costs, and with the overall very high levels of global vaccine production by the end of 2021 continuing to expand, the question of getting the world vaccinated in 2022 against COVID will almost certainly be more about issues other than availability of vaccines.

So the WTO’s most important role in the coming weeks and months is to focus on reducing barriers to trade such as those covered by the Walker draft text (discussed in the briefing paper). The TRIPS waiver issue is one that has attracted a lot of attention because of the perception of global needs and whether intellectual property rights were restricting access. In my view, while the proposal was popular with many groups, the evidence of production during 2021 did not support the concern that the TRIPS agreement was restricting production. More than 10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines were produced and shipped in 2021 — twice as many doses as all vaccines produced and shipped in 2020 for all other needs. Many licenses were granted for production in other countries. A waiver would not have resulted in significantly more production in 2021.

Production in 2022 and the arrival of new low cost vaccines should mean there is adequate volumes for the world to achieve 70% vaccination rates this year. The issue of equity in 2021 had to do with distribution of the production, infrastructure in many countries, trade restrictions on vaccines and inputs. These do not require a TRIPS waiver to address in 2022.

Looking forward to the next pandemic, there is much that the WTO Members could agree to that would reduce many of the challenges COVID-19 has posed. It is not clear that actions on intellectual property beyond what is being proposed by the EU are needed or justified by the experience gained these last several years.

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