Press articles and a release from the World Trade Organization indicate that the small group negotiations between the European Union, United States, India and South Africa have reached a compromise on the India-South Africa proposal for a broad waiver of TRIPS requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and the European Union’s proposal for a different solution that wouldn’t constitute a waiver. See PoliticoPro, SCOOP: There’s a TRIPS waiver compromise. It’s been reached between EU, SA, India & US and currently only covers vaccines, March 15, 2022, https://twitter.com/ashleighfurlong/status/1503799100214583300; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, USTR: High-level TRIPS waiver talks yield compromise; text not yet agreed to, March 15, 2022,https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/ustr-high-level-trips-waiver-talks-yield-compromise-text-not-yet-agreed; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Okonjo-Iweala hails TRIPS compromise as industry remains opposed, March 16, 2022, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/okonjo-iweala-hails-trips-compromise-industry-remains-opposed; Washington Trade Daily, Details of TRIPS Waiver Compromise, March 17, 2022, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/abdf1d95-8d5b-4bb6-87e9-9ad73bcae287.pdf.
The agreement, which still requires final agreement on text by the small group and then consideration and acceptance by the full WTO Membership, is a staged one, applying first to vaccines and six months later (if subsequently agreed) to diagnostics and therapeutics. The agreement would apply to developing countries other than those who exported 10% or more of vaccines in 2021. Based on the WTO-IMF COVID-19 Vaccine Trade Tracker, the only developing country with 10% or more of global exports in 2021 was China. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/vaccine_trade_tracker_e.htm.
By picking exports in 2021 as the test for eligibility for developing countries, India remains eligible for the proposed compromise simply because the country, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers and a country that had contracts to export huge quantities to many of the world’s poorest countries in 2021, closed off exports for much of 2021 because of internal needs.
Press reports have indicated that some other countries, like Brazil, are not eligible. If true, this would flow from something other than export volume (e.g., indication that it would not seek special and differential treatment going forward) as Brazil had a negligible share of global exports of COVID vaccines in 2021.
The WTO’s Director-General released a press statement on March 16 which is copied below. See WTO news release, Director-General Okonjo-Iweala hails breakthrough on TRIPS COVID-19 solution, 16 March 2022, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news22_e/dgno_16mar22_e.htm
“World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala today warmly welcomed the breakthrough among four WTO Members on a waiver of the Trade Related Intellectual Property agreement for the production of vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“’This is a major step forward and this compromise is the result of many long and difficult hours of negotiations. But we are not there yet. We have more work to do to ensure that we have the support of the entire WTO Membership,’ the Director-General said.
“While the agreement between the European Union, India, South Africa and the United States is an essential element to any final deal, she cautioned that not all the details of the compromise have been ironed out and that internal domestic consultations within the four members are still ongoing. Moreover, she stressed that work must commence immediately to broaden the discussions to include all 164 members of the WTO.
“’In the WTO we decide by consensus, and this has not yet been achieved. My team and I have been working hard for the past three months and we are ready to roll up our sleeves again to work together with the TRIPS Council Chair Ambassador Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone) to bring about a full agreement as quickly as possible. We are grateful to the four Members for the difficult work they have undertaken so far,’ said Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.”
Neither the EU nor the U.S. have released statements which is consistent with the apparent state of play of the negotiations in the small group. One of the parties or one of those private parties being consulted by WTO Members presumably has leaked the text which is available on Stats News. See Stat News, Ed Silverman, A compromise is reached on an intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, but does it go far enough?, March 15, 2022, https://www.statnews.com/pharmalot/2022/03/15/covid19-vaccine-patents-wto/. The two page document is embedded below.TRIPS-COVID-19-solution-document
Proponents and opponents of a TRIPS waiver responded quickly as reflected in press releases and other articles. See, e.g., KNOWLEDGE ECOLOGY INTERNATIONAL, QUAD’s tentative agreement on TRIPS and COVID 19, March 15, 2022, https://www.keionline.org/37544; In These Times, New “Compromise” on an IP Waiver for Covid Vaccines Is Worse Than No Deal, Activists Say, March 16, 2022, https://inthesetimes.com/article/wto-trips-waiver-intellectual-property-biden-vaccines-diagnostics-treatments; Devex, Devex Check Up: At last, a TRIPS waiver compromise. But who’s happy?, March 17, 2022, https://www.devex.com/news/devex-checkup-at-last-a-trips-waiver-compromise-but-who-s-happy-102844; InfoJustice, STATEMENT ON THE LEAKED COVID-19 TRIPS WAIVERPROPOSAL, Posted by
Sean Flynn, Mar 16, 2022, http://infojustice.org/archives/43947; Relief Web, MSF responds to potential compromise on the ‘TRIPS Waiver’, 16 March 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/msf-responds-potential-compromise-trips-waiver; U.S., Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Opposes Proposal at WTO to Waive Intellectual Property Rights , March 16, 2022, https://www.uschamber.com/intellectual-property/u-s-chamber-of-commerce-opposes-proposal-at-wto-to-waive-intellectual-property-rights; , International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, IFPMA statement on TRIPS discussion document, 16 March 2022, https://www.ifpma.org/resource-centre/statement-ifpma-trips-discussion-document/.
The proponents of a waiver are basically unhappy with the compromise which is not a waiver but rather a modification to requirements under TRIPS Art. 31. They are also unhappy with the fact that only vaccines are covered initially and the fact that the draft agreement deals with patents only versus the broader array of intellectual property rights. The statement from Doctors Without Borders reflects the types of concerns from those wanting a broader agreement and is copied below.
“MSF responds to potential compromise on the ‘TRIPS Waiver’
“Compromise neglects COVID-19 treatments and diagnostics and fails to address intellectual property barriers beyond patents, but there’s still time to get it right
“Geneva, 16 March 2022
“– The European Union, India, South Africa and the United States are working on a possible compromise to address intellectual property (IP)barriers on COVID-19 medical products. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) acknowledges the efforts towards a final resolution, but notes that the text that was leaked today is far from being an IP ‘waiver’ for pandemic medical tools.
“MSF urges all World Trade Organization (WTO) members to be aware of the limitations of the leaked text. WTO members should work together to ensure that any agreement tackles the current barriers to accessing all COVID-19 medical tools, including treatments and diagnostics, and also addresses patents and non-patent barriers in an effective way.
“According to MSF’s initial analysis, key limitations of the leaked text include that it covers only vaccines, is geographically limited, and covers only patents and does not address other intellectual property barriers, such as trade secrets, which may cover critical information needed to facilitate manufacturing. Regarding compulsory licensing for patents on COVID-19 vaccines, the leaked text introduces unnecessary reporting requirements for WTO members that could undermine the effectiveness of the mechanism.
“The leaked text appears to leave the door open for possible inclusion of treatments and diagnostics at a later stage. But delaying the decision on treatments is unacceptable, as many people will have no access to generic antivirals and countries are paying high prices for access to lifesaving treatments like baricitinib due topatent monopolies that block more affordable generic versions.
“The leaked text also fails to cover all countries. It limits ‘eligible members’ to developing countries and only those who exported less than 10 percent of the world’sCOVID-19 vaccine exports in 2021, effectively excluding Brazil and China from being able to use the ‘waiver’.
“The proposed compromise would require authorisation by governments on a product-by-product basis, which was one of the shortcomings of the existing mechanism in a pandemic context and makes its use very cumbersome. There is also a new obligation to identify all patents covered by the authorisation, something not required today under WTO trade rules.
“MSF points again to our position underlining the necessary scope and duration of an effective TRIPS Waiver for COVID-19.
“Dimitri Eynikel, EU Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign:
“‘While it is good to see the groundwork for a potential compromise on addressing COVID-19 intellectual property barriers, all WTO members should remain vigilant to the fact that this leaked text contains considerable limitations, and needs to be urgently improved.
“It is incredibly concerning that the leaked text currently only covers vaccines, but neither treatments nor diagnostics. Excluding treatments and diagnostics is acritical weakness, especially as access to COVID-19 treatments remains a significant problem in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Latin America, in part because of patent barriers and restrictive licensing deals controlled by pharmaceutical corporations. Excluding countries with significant manufacturing and supply capacity like Brazil is highly problematic as it arbitrarily blocks potential critical avenues to increase access to COVID-19 medical tools for low- and middle-income countries.
“‘The world needs effective solutions to the inequities in access for all COVID-19 medical tools witnessed in this pandemic. The good news is there is still room for governments to improve and make sure that any final agreement adequately addresses the remaining barriers now missing in the leaked text. We urge all WTO members to do so.’”
The pharmaceutical industry’s concerns basically follow their longstanding position that with the rapid increase in vaccine production in 2021 and ongoing in 2022, there is no need for the agreement and it sends the wrong message to innovators. The statement from the IPFMA is copied below.
“Following reports on the status of informal discussions led by the WTO Secretariat with the European Union (EU), India, South Africa, and the USA, on 16 March 2022, biopharmaceutical companies reaffirm their position that weakening patents now when it is widely acknowledged that there are no longer supply constraints of COVID-19 vaccines, sends the wrong signal.
“2022 kicked off with COVID-19 vaccine production from both developing and developed country manufacturers reaching 12 billion within a year of the first vaccine being authorized. Today industry is able to produce over a billion vaccine each month. COVAX is now fully meeting its commitments. Since the beginning of 2022, there has been broad consensus that the challenge now is how to get the vaccines into the arms of people who need them, rather than vaccine supply. When the IP TRIPS Waiver was first proposed in 2020, it was to the wrong solution to the problem of scaling up manufacturing of potential COVID-19 vaccines which at the time had not yet even been authorized. Now the problem of supply has been addressed thanks to unprecedented collaboration involving companies from industrialized and developing countries, the TRIPS Waiver is not only the wrong solution, it is also an outdated proposal, that has been overtaken by events.
“Weakening intellectual property (IP) will do nothing to help the scaling up of vaccine manufacturing. There is a broad consensus among experts that waiving patents would not add a single additional vaccine dose, because technology transfer goes far beyond the patent, is built on trust, know-how sharing and voluntary licensing. This is exactly what manufacturers have done on an unprecedented scale. As of now, there are 371 collaborations on vaccines manufacturing and 155 for therapeutics and, in addition, the multiple announcements of partnerships to improve geographical diversity of vaccine production, are proof in themselves that the proposed IP TRIPS waiver is unnecessary and irrelevant, at worst sends the wrong signal at the wrong time.
“The IP TRIPS Waiver proposals should be recognized for what they are – political posturing that are at best a distraction, at worse creating uncertainty that can undermine innovation’s ability to respond to the current and future response to pandemics. The current proposals should be shelved; and the focus should be directed, to admittedly more difficult actions that will change lives for the better: supporting country readiness, contributing to equitable distribution, and driving innovation (Ref Three priorities to urgently increase access to COVID-19 vaccines).”
Over the last eighteen months, I have posted regularly on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Indian and South African proposal for a broad TRIPS waiver. Following the recent European Union – African Union meeting in Brussels, it was clear that the EU was committed to finding a mutually agreeable solution with the countries of Africa in the coming months. Thus, the announcement of a breakthrough in the small group negotiations is not surprising. See February 21, 2022: The EU – AU Summit and the promise of a resolution to the WTO pandemic response package, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/02/21/the-eu-au-summit-and-the-promise-of-a-resolution-to-the-wto-pandemic-response-package/.
Data gathered and published by various multilateral organizations confirm the enormous ramp up in both vaccine capacity and production. And there has been significant movement in increasing production of vaccines in more developing countries, including a number in Africa. See, e.g., February 16, 2022: Building Vaccine Capacity in Africa – Exciting News from BioNTech, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/02/16/building-vaccine-capacity-in-africa-exciting-news-from-biontech/.
Articles also confirm that the challenge in low-income countries is now not access to vaccines but rather all of the other requirements to achieve much higher vaccination rates (including better access to testing). See, e.g., WHO, WHO Director-General’s remarks atSession 2 – Potential Opportunities for Innovation and Collaboration, 3 March 2022, https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-remarks-at-session-2-potential-opportunities-for-innovation-and-collaboration-covid-19-dialogue-with-ministers-of-health-3-march-2022.
Thus, it is hard for me to find merit in the ongoing claims for a need for a broad TRIPS waiver or even the draft agreement at least as it pertains to the COVID-19 pandemic and equitable access to vaccines. WTO relevance requires addressing either current pressing issues or those that will continue to be present in the future. The draft agreement may meet the need for some compromise between Members like the EU and India, South Africa and other supporters of the waiver. However, the agreement doesn’t appear to serve a useful purpose by addressing current challenges (e.g., testing) or addressing a road forward for future pandemics.