Looking at WTO press releases over the last week, the WTO’s Director-General has been urging Members to find a path forward on a handful of issues — a response to the pandemic (including IP flexibilities), concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations that have been dragging on for more than twenty years, obtaining some movement on agriculture (food security, no restrictions on sales to the World Food Programme) and an outline of a possible work program going forward including on WTO reform. Various press articles have suggested modest progress at best has been achieved in recent weeks and flag challenges to achieving any meaningful results at next week’s Ministerial Conference. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, MC12: A preview, As ministers head to Geneva for MC12, success remains on a knife’s edge, June 9, 2022, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/ministers-head-geneva-mc12-success-remains-knife’s-edge. The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has created even further challenges to achieving any meaningful outcomes next week.
Yesterday’s article in The Globe and Mail had Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talking about it still being possible to bring in the first two issues listed above without commenting on other items before the Members. See The Globe and Mail, Global agreement on COVID-19 vaccine rights waiver within reach, WTO chief says, June 8, 2022, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-global-agreement-on-covid-19-vaccine-rights-waiver-within-reach-WTO/ (“An international agreement on waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines is within reach ahead of a global trade meeting next week, the head of the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday. In a telephone interview, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala also said an agreement could be reached on fishing subsidies in time for the meeting, when 120 trade ministers from around the world gather at the body’s Geneva headquarters.”).
As reviewed in prior posts, there are a range of matters that have been discussed including a number of joint statement initiatives (at least one of which is concluded among willing Members). See May 11, 2022: Less than five weeks to the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference — what are likely deliverables?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/05/11/less-than-five-weeks-to-the-wtos-12th-ministerial-conference-what-are-likely-deliverables/. How many of the issues that have been being worked on will result in actual outcomes or simply be included in a future work program is the question heading into next week. Most bets would say the Ministerial Conference will be lucky to achieve even modest success.
There are a host of documents that are posted on the WTO webcite as documents for the Ministerial. See WTO, MINISTERIAL CONFERENCES: TWELFTH WTO MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/minist_e/mc12_e/documents_e.htm (accessed on June 9, 2022). There is a draft text and revision for fisheries subsidies (but not the current iteration). There is no draft text for the pandemic response as yet although both the IP flexibility draft forwarded to the membership in recent weeks and the broader package of provisions have been in the public domain, but don’t reflect recent negotiations. The agricultural negotiating group chair’s draft of a text from November 2021 is on the webcite but again doesn’t reflect developments from 2022. There are lists of issues various developing country groups and least developed countries would like to see as well as a Brazilian paper proposing having ministerial meetings every year versus the current every two years (which has twice slipped to only once in four years). While all these documents provide some background on issues of interest to at least some of the Members, the core documents will likely be those added by Sunday reflecting hoped for outcomes.
The world needs the WTO to be successful next week. Fisheries subsidies are a major problem and fish stocks globally have paid the price of the inaction by WTO Members. The pandemic has raised important issues for trade playing a more important role in minimizing negative effects and improving equitable access to vaccines. And the food insecurity issues which have been grossly worsened by the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine are critical for tens of millions of the world’s population, with trade being an important element to addressing the current issue. And the WTO is in need of fundamental reform if it is to be able to address changing global needs in a timely manner, something it has been unable to do in its first twenty 27 years.
The divisions among WTO Members on the path forward for the WTO and the opposition of many to working with the Russian Federation argue for a minimalist package in fact at next week’s Ministerial Conference. Even a minimalist package may prove illusive in today’s world. Let’s hope for a meaningful success next week.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create problems around the world, there has been increased activity in many countries and at multilateral organizations seeking to expand COVID-19 vaccine production and increase access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. While a number of vaccines have been approved by one or more countries (usually on an emergency use authorization basis) and a few have been approved the World Health Organization, a number of others are seeking approval or are in final stages of trials.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control now issues a weekly update on the COVID-19 situation worldwide. Today’s release of data for week 17 of 2021 shows global cases since the beginning at 153,220,576 of which the Americas has the largest share with 41.16% (63,068,547 cases; U.S. being 32.4 million; Brazil being 14.8 million; Argentina being 3.0 million; Colombia being 2.9 million and Mexico being 2.3 million). Europe is second with 33.10% of the total cases (50,722,884; France with 5.7 million, Turkey with 4.9 million, Russia with 4.8 million, the U.K. with 4.4 million and Italy with 4.0 million). Asia represents 22.70% of cases (34,785,351 of which India is 19.9 million, Iran is 2.5 million, Indonesia is 1.7 million, Iraq is 1.1 million and the Philippines is 1.1 million). Africa accounts for 2.98% of cases (4,571,789 of which South Africa has reported 1.6 million and no other countries have more than 0.5 million). Oceania accounts for 0.05% of cases (71,300). See European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 17, updated 6 May 2021, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases.
Deaths are similarly distributed globally with the Americas having 47.79% of global deaths (1,533,740 of 3,209,416); Europe having 33.47% (1,074,175), Asia having 14.89% (477,851), Africa having 3.81% (122,304) and Oceania having 0.04% (1,340). Id.
The world has seen increases in new cases for the last ten weeks in a row and has had the highest number of cases per week in the most recent weeks as the copied graphic from today’s ECDC publication shows.
“Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of week 17 2021
“Cases reported in accordance with the applied case definition and testing strategies in the affected countries.”
As the news accounts make clear, India is facing major challenges and has accounted for a very large part of new cases in recent weeks. For example, over the last 14 days, India reported 4.86 million new cases. This is the first time any country has amassed more than four million cases in a two week period. India has accounted for 42.61% of the world total of new cases in that two week period. Id.
Press accounts have shown a health care system in India struggling to keep up with shortages of everything from ICU units to PPE to medications to oxygen and with a small part of the population totally vaccinated or having received the first of two shots. BBC News, Coronavirus: How India descended into Covid-19 chaos, 5 May 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56977653.
In response to its internal crisis, India has diverted production of COVID-19 vaccines to domestic use, essentially halting exports, complicating the efforts of the COVAX facility to get vaccines to the 91 low- and middle-income countries (other than India which also is supposed to receive vaccines from COVAX). While COVAX has shipped more than 53 million doses to 121 countries as of May 4, as much as 90 million additional vaccine doses were supposed to be supplied by Indian producers to COVAX during April and May that will not make it into the system. See, e.g., Gavi, COVAX vaccine rollout, https://www.gavi.org/covax-facility; Gavi, COVAX updates participants on delivery delays for vaccines from Serum Institute of India (SII) and AstraZeneca, 25 March 2021, https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/covax-updates-participants-delivery-delays-vaccines-serum-institute-india-sii-az.
Considering the challenges that India is facing, many nations have been providing assistance in an effort to support India as it attempts to cope with the current surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The U.S. assistance is summarized in a fact sheet from the White House which is embedded below.
A number of countries in South America are also seeing major problems — e.g., Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru — though receiving far less attention than India.
Vaccination development, production and distribution
Efforts have been made over the last decade to develop tools and organizations to develop, produce and distribute vaccines to achieve greater equity in access and affordability of vaccines. The WHO, Gavi, CEPI and UNICEF along with important private sector actors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have worked hard to both support research of potential vaccines to address the COVID-19 pandemic, worked with companies to arrange purchases of vaccines if approved for use, raised funds from governments and private sector participants to pay for the efforts on research and procurement, and organized distribution to the 92 low- and middle-income countries sufficient to address 20% of the populations as well as for any other countries choosing to work through the COVAX facility.
At the same time, a number of countries have negotiated contracts with companies developing vaccines. Because at the time of contracting, it was not known which vaccines would be effective or achieve approval from which governments, major advanced economies often contracted for quantities far in excess of likely needs (assuming all vaccines were eventually approved).
Because of the unprecedented government funding and industry cooperation, a number of vaccines were developed and approved on at least an emergency use basis and production efforts began in late 2020 and have been ramping up in 2021. This includes vaccines developed in the U.S., the European Union, the United Kingdom, China, India and Russia. While all have not yet been approved by the WHO, all have been approved by at least a number of governments. A number of others are either in the approval process or in final stage trials with vaccine approvals likely in the second half of 2021.
It is expected that capacity to produce more than 10 billion doses of vaccines to fight COVID-19 will be operational by the end of 2021. COVAX contracts and deliveries to economies outside of COVAX have anticipated relatively small volumes in the 1st quarter of 2021, with increases in each of the next three quarters. UNICEF has a “COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard” which it describes as follows (https://www.unicef.org/supply/covid-19-vaccine-market-dashboard):
“The COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard is the go-to public resource for the latest information on the world’s COVID-19 vaccine market and the COVAX Facility’s vaccine deliveries.
“From a global vaccine market perspective, the dashboard gives an overview of:
“- COVID-19 vaccine development and progress towards vaccine approvals
“- Reported global vaccine production capacity
“- Manufacturing agreements
“- Vaccines secured and optioned through bilateral and multilateral supply agreements
“- Reported vaccine prices
“The ‘Delivery’ tab of the dashboard provides daily updates on total COVAX vaccine deliveries, doses allocated, and doses ordered. It also includes country- and economy level data on vaccine deliveries and planned shipments over a seven-day period. This information covers both UNICEF-procured doses and deliveries, as well as other national and institutional buyers participating in the COVAX Facility. It further tracks globally reported vaccine deliveries and vaccine donations outside of COVAX.”
For example, looking at the capacity figures from the dashboard by development stage shows 4 billion dose capacity approved for use in the first half of 2021, growing to 8 billion dose capacity approved for use in the second half of 2021, with 19 billion dose capacity projected for each of 2022 and 2023 as being approved for use.
As of May 5, 3032, Bloomberg reports that more than 1.21 billion COVID-19 doses have been administered. The top six areas for vaccinations are China (284.6 million doses administered), the United States (249.6 million), India (162.4 million), the EU (158.6 million), the U.K. (50.7 million) and Brazil (50.2 million). See Bloomberg, More Than 1.21 Billion Shots Given: Covid-19 Tracker, updated May 5, 2021 at 5:38 p.m. EDT, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/. Not surprisingly, with the exception of China which has one of the lowest rates of infection of any country in the world, vaccinations have been concentrated in countries with high rates of infection — both developed and developing.
Because of the disruption in supplies from India because of their current challenges, far fewer doses have been administered in low-income countries as COVAX is behind its schedule for deliveries. There are, of course, other challenges in a number of low-income countries, where poor health care infrastructure has resulted in many of the vaccine doses that have been received not being used. See NPR, They Desperately Need COVID Vaccines. So Why Are Some Countries Throwing Out Doses?, May 5, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/05/05/991684096/they-desperately-need-covid-vaccines-so-why-are-some-countries-throwing-out-dose (“It seems incredible: At a time when low-income nations are clamoring for vaccines against COVID-19, at least three countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and South Sudan — are either discarding doses or giving them to other countries. What’s going on?”).
The Proposal for a TRIPs Waiver from India and South Africa
Back in October 2020, India and South Africa filed a proposal for a waiver from many TRIPS Agreement obligations for all WTO Members for a period of years on vaccines, therapeutics and other medical goods relevant to handling the COVID-19 pandemic. There has not been agreement within the TRIPS Council on approving the proposed waiver with a number of advanced pharmaceutical producing countries (U.S., EU, U.K., Switzerland) opposing the proposal or disagreeing that a waiver would address the current availability challenges. The issue has been discussed on a number of occasions in the TRIPS Council. See, e.g., WTO press release, TRIPS Council to continue to discuss temporary IP waiver, revised proposal expected in May, 30 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/trip_30apr21_e.htm. There have also been efforts to identify challenges to increasing capacity and production faster and addressing concerns over equitable access. Those issues have been addressed in prior posts, listed above.
There has been considerable pressure from NGOs and, in the U.S., from Democratic members of Congress to agree to the waiver despite concerns within the Biden Administration on whether agreeing to a waiver would actually improve production or access. The Biden Administration in late April announced its decision to make 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines available for redistribution in the coming months (including 10 million doses in current inventory once FDA approves release). AstraZeneca has not yet applied for authorization for its vaccine in the United States, and the U.S. believes it has sufficient other supplies to permit sharing the 60 million doses expected to be available through June. See Financial Times, U.S. plans to share 60m doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine, 26 April 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/db461dd7-b132-4f08-a94e-b23a6764bdb3. And as part of the relief the U.S. is providing to India, the U.S. has directed inputs for 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be sent to India instead of to U.S. facilities.
Leading nations through groupings like the G-7, G-20 and others have been looking at the options for further increasing production in the coming months to give greater coverage, as well as looking at sending doses not needed to COVAX or particular countries in need. See, e.g., Gavi, France makes important vaccine dose donation to COVAX, 23 April 2021, https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/france-makes-important-vaccine-dose-donation-covax.
“Enabling equitable global access to Covid-19 Vaccines, Therapeutics and Diagnostics (VTDs)
“62. We affirm our belief that commitment to an open, transparent and multilateral approach is essential in responding to the global health impacts of Covid-19. A global health emergency on this scale requires co-ordinated action and global solidarity. We reaffirm our support for all existing pillars of Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), including its COVAX facility. We recognise that equipping the ACTAccelerator with adequate funding is central. We support the strengthening of health systems, and affordable and equitable global access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, and we will further increase our efforts to support affordable and equitable access for people in need, taking approaches consistent with members’ commitments to incentivise innovation. We recall in this regard the Charter for Equitable Access to Covid-19 Tools. We recognise the importance of effective and well-functioning global value chains for VTD supply and will work with industry to encourage and support on a voluntary basis and on mutually agreed terms, including licensing, technology and know-how transfers, contract manufacturing , transparency, and data sharing, public private costs and risk sharing. We recognise the need to enable a sustainable environment for local, regional and global productions, beyond Covid-19 products for long-term impact. We welcome the collective G7 commitments of over $10.7 billion USD to date in funding to these initiatives and encourage all partners to increase their support as the next critical step in controlling the pandemic and strengthening health security. In this context, we look forward to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) Summit to be co-hosted by Gavi and Japan following the COVAX AMC One World Protected Event co-hosted by Gavi and US. (Emphasis added)
“63. We commit to the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Equitable Access and Collaboration Statement to help accelerate the end of the acute phase of the Covid19 pandemic. We commit to supporting COVAX financially, including by encouraging pledges to the Facility, including at the COVAX AMC Summit in June, disbursing as soon as possible, providing in-kind contributions, and coordinating with and using COVAX, which is the key mechanism for global sharing of vaccines to supplement its own direct procurement, to enable the rapid equitable deployment of vaccines.
“64. We support the work of G7 Health Ministers and continued G7 efforts to work with partners to improve pandemic preparedness and global health security, with WHO as the leading and co-ordinating authority, to strengthen health systems, develop solutions that embed a One Health approach, tackle antimicrobial resistance, and accelerate progress towards universal health coverage and the health-related Sustainable Development Goals. We welcome the establishment of the One Health High Level Experts Panel supported by WHO, FAO, OIE and UNEP. We are determined to ensure that lessons are learned and applied from the pandemic. We look forward to the forthcoming G20 Global Health Summit in Rome and to its Declaration, and to further close cooperation on strengthening the global health architecture, including longer-term considerations such as exploring the potential value of a global health treaty, to strengthen global pandemic preparedness and response. We will deploy our foreign and development policies and programmes to build a more resilient world that is better protected against health threats, including encouraging new public health guidance in consultation with national and relevant international organisations on international travel by sea or air, including cruise ships, and supporting an expert-driven, transparent, and independent process for the next phase of the WHO-convened Covid-19 origins study, and for expeditiously investigating future outbreaks of unknown origin. Together with G7 Health Ministers, we commit to work in partnership with low- and lower-middle income countries by improving coordination of G7 support for, and collaboration with, public health and health security capacities and their regional bodies in Africa, Asia and other regions, building on the G7 commitment to support implementation of and compliance with the International Health Regulations (IHR) in 76 countries, taking into account the recommendations from the IHR Review Committee. We will align with and support national and regional health priorities and leadership to improve public health. We look forward to the publication of the G7 Carbis Bay Progress Report on global health and what we can learn from its conclusions on G7 commitments to strengthening health systems to advance universal health coverage and global health security.
“65. We note the continuing need to support health systems and health security and secure sustainable financing, together with partner countries’ domestic resources, to help accelerate global vaccine development and deployment, recover and then sustain access to essential health and nutrition services and health commodities, including in humanitarian settings and for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to bolster the global health architecture for pandemic preparedness, including through stronger rapid response mechanisms. We look forward to working with G7 Finance Ministers to build consensus on practical actions to facilitate access to existing global financing sources to meet demands for access to Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, as well as how best to tackle the ACT-A funding gaps, with the aim of shortening the lifespan of the pandemic and with particular focus on the needs of vulnerable countries. In this regard, we look forward to the outcomes of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) initiated by the WHO, and the High Level Independent Panel on financing the global commons for pandemic preparedness and response (HLIP) established by the G20.”
At the same time that G-7 foreign ministers were concluding their work in London, the WTO was holding the first of two days of a General Council meeting. The WTO’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged the resolution of addressing equitable access to vaccines. The U.S. Trade Representative issued a statement changing the U.S. position (and contradicting what they had agreed with other G-7 foreign ministers hours before) by indicating that the U.S. would support the waiver of TRIPS rights and obligations during the pandemic and would work on text in the TRIPS Council to see if a consensus could be achieved. The Director-General’s statement from May 5, the USTR statement and the Director-General’s comments on the USTR statement are embedded below.
While the pharmaceutical industry in advanced countries is unquestionably shocked by the shift in U.S. position (and stocks of vaccine producers suffered stock market price declines on May 5), the EU President has indicated a willingness to look at the issue and the French President has indicated his support of the U.S. position. See Financial Times, Pharma industry fears Biden’s patent move sets dangerous precedent, 6 May 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f54bf71b-87be-4290-9c95-4d110eec7a90; The Guardian, EU ‘ready to discuss’ waiver on Covidvaccine patents, 6 May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/06/eu-ready-to-discuss-waiver-on-covid-vaccine-patents (“The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen , has said the bloc is ‘ready to discuss’ a US-backed proposal for a waiver on the patents for Covid-19 vaccines and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he was ‘absolutely in favour’ of the plan as pressure built for a move that could boost their production and distribution around the world.”).
The concerns of industry have been identified in prior posts of mine and are summarized in yesterday’s Financial Times article on what if any benefit there will be should a waiver be agreed to. See Financial Times, Will a suspension of Covid vaccine patents lead to more jabs?, 6 May 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/b0f42409-6fdf-43eb-96c7-d166e090ab99 (“[T]he drug makers’ main argument is that waiving intellectual property is not the solution. Vaccine makers have already pulled out all the stops to supply billions of doses at an unprecedented speed, including signing unusual partnerships with rivals to expand production. Moderna put its patents online last summer but they are not useful alone.”).
The Road Forward
It is unclear where the process at the WTO goes from here. The WTO TRIPS Council is expecting a revised document from India and South Africa in May that arguably could become the basis for WTO Members, including the U.S. and EU and others who have been opposed to a waiver, to consider and negotiate from. If a consensus emerges around a text, then it would go to the General Council for a vote/approval. But while the formal process is understood, it is unclear what an agreement would actually look like. It is hard to imagine that the U.S., EU, Switzerland, Japan and possibly others would agree to waive the pharmaceutical companies rights within their own territories. So there is a question whether rights could be waived selectively? If so, what possible liability would exist for governments and/or companies exploiting the IP rights of others? It is unclear if there will be a requirement for some/all countries who engage in use of others intellectual property to provide compensation similar to a compulsory license fee. Will countries that have existing voluntary licensing agreements with producers be able to void those agreements or have the same IP rights used by other companies? Will there be limitations on where goods produced can be shipped (e.g., only to low- and middle-income countries)? What will the basis be for getting IP holders to transfer technology where there is no compensation? There are undoubtedly dozens of other issues that the industry and their lawyers have besides the above. If waiver is the direction the world goes, presumably there needs to be transparency and full opportunity for vetting proposals so that all issues are identified, understood and properly addressed.
In my prior posts, I have argued that to date vaccines have largely gone to the countries with large levels of infections and deaths. Those pushing for greater equity in access based on a simple percent of global population approach abandon those concerns when a large developing country runs into a surge and finds itself in serious difficulty, such as is happening with India. I support targeting relief to address fire situations like India. See April 29, 2021, COVID-19 — Efforts to help India during its current surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/04/29/covid-19-efforts-to-help-india-during-its-current-surge-of-cases-hospitalizations-and-deaths/. There are equally important fire situations in other countries that deserve the attention and concern of the world as well.
The WTO has been and should be encouraging Members to eliminate export restrictions as quickly as possible. The new Director-General has used the power of convening to probe what are the barriers to increased production and greater distribution to low- and middle-income countries. Many of the barriers are bottlenecks in supply chains, shortages of various inputs as the industry drastically ramps up production of vaccines, lack of trained personnel in some countries where there may be existing vaccine capacity for other vaccines. Governments can and should be working with industry to address bottlenecks on an expedited basis. Encouraging voluntary licensing is useful and there are some 272 agreements around the world already in place with others being worked on. However, as Johnson & Johnson’s experience (where it talked to 100 companies but only found 10 they could work with) shows, the presence of a facility in a country is not the same as a facility with trained personnel who can actually produce a safe vaccine of the types currently approved for use on COVID-19.
The biggest short term availability of more supplies for low- and middle-income countries is not from the waiver but rather from governments redirecting volumes that are not needed for their own populations. The U.S. and EU are each starting that, but more can and should be done. Such actions have real potential.
Similarly, pursuit of new vaccines, such as one being tested in a number of developing countries that is far lower cost than some currently being used to vaccinate against COVID-19 and which apparently can be easily used in many countries in existing vaccine facilities makes a lot of sense. 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.
While there are lots of groups and individuals arguing there is a moral imperative to wave the IP rights of pharmaceutical companies during the global pandemic, there is little practical evidence that such an approach will get the world to the place presumably everybody wants — the quickest curtailment of the pandemic for the benefit of all.
Time will tell whether an effort to negotiate a waiver is an aid or a hindrance to actually ending the pandemic.
While the WTO’s General Council, in special session, appointed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General on February 15, 2021, her term starts on Monday, March 1. The challenges facing the WTO membership and the incoming Director-General are many and complex. At the same time, there is a lot of useful work that is done within the WTO including efforts of non-members to join the WTO (accessions).
In speaking to an informal Trade Negotiations Committee and Heads of Delegation meeting on February 25, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff spoke in part on “The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era”. See WTO, DDG Wolff calls on members to work with new Director-General to reform WTO, 25 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_25feb21_e.htm. Part of the section of his statement on the new DG’s era is copied below.
“The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era
“The landmark event of the last six months was the appointment of the new Director-General ten days ago after what turned out to be a lengthy process. 91 member delegations spoke last week to congratulate the new Director-General. The DDGs and the Secretariat join you in welcoming Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment with great enthusiasm.
“Of course, member enthusiasm, optimism and hope need to be translated into concrete action.
“There is much that needs to be done at this critical juncture for the WTO. World trade must contribute to a more effective pandemic response as well as a strong and sustainable economic recovery. Climate issues are demanding more urgent attention. WTO reform is overdue, having been called for repeatedly by you, by your ministers and by many heads of government.
“The challenges are many but so are the opportunities. Dr Ngozi’s remarks at the Special General Council meeting last Monday, subsequently circulated to delegations in document JOB/GC/250, presented a worthy and ambitious agenda for the members of this organization.
“What did she say?
“To act with a sense of urgency to assist in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic through the nexus of trade and public health:
“First, by playing a more forceful role in exercising the WTO’s monitoring function. Part of this would involve encouraging members to minimise or remove export restrictions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment. WTO monitoring suggests that as of yesterday, 59 members and 7 observers still had pandemic-related export restrictions or licensing requirements in place, mostly for personal protective equipment, disinfectants and to a lesser extent, for medicines and food. This represents a significant level of rollback compared to the 81 members and 10 observers that had implemented such measures over the past year. A welcome development — but there is much room to improve this record.
“And second, by broadening access to new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics by facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules.
“Beyond these immediate responses to the pandemic, Dr Ngozi set out a number of other, also vitally important, challenges:
“To swiftly conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations, and thus pass a key test of the WTO’s multilateral credibility while contributing to the sustainability of the world’s oceans.
“To build on the new energy in the multilateral trading system from the joint statement initiatives attracting greater support and interest, including from developing countries.
“To address more broadly the nexus between trade and climate change, using trade to create a green and circular economy, to reactivate and broaden negotiations on environmental goods and services, to take the initiative to address the issue of carbon border adjustments as they may affect trade.
“To level the playing field in agricultural trade though improving market access and dealing with trade distorting domestic support, exempting from export restrictions World Food Programme humanitarian purchases.
“To strengthen disciplines on industrial subsidies, including support for state-owned enterprises.
“To defuse the divisions over Special and Differential Treatment (SDT).
“And to develop a work programme for restoring two-tier dispute resolution, to be agreed no later than MC12.
“I sense from my discussions with members that you chose this leader, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, because she has shown herself during her career to be fearless in the face of daunting challenges — and is experienced in knowing how to work with others to make progress toward solutions.
“Each of the challenges the WTO faces, I am sure, can be met and overcome. Echoing Dr Ngozi’s words, the trading system that we inherited, now only three-quarters of a century old, is about people. This is inscribed in the opening section of the Marrakech agreement: ‘to raise living standards, ensure full employment, increase incomes, expand the production of and trade in goods and services, and seek the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development.”’
DDG Wolff’s summation correctly lays out many of the issues needing to be addressed by the WTO membership. The vast majority of the issues are highly controversial among at least some Members.
The first major order of business is a two day General Council meeting on March 1-2 which has several agenda items that lay out controversies on important potential deliverables by the WTO in 2021. The agenda for the two day meeting contains sixteen items. See WT/GC/W/820 (26 February 2021) embedded below.
General Council meetings deal with updates on ongoing work at the WTO and address issues teed up by particular Members for consideration at the meeting. This post does not take up all agenda items but highlights a few of possible interest. Because DDG Wolff’s statement on February 25 reviews many of the activities of the WTO in the last six months which shows some of the positive developments, the full statement is embedded below.
Agenda item 4 deals with the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference. It is expected that there will be a decision on the timing and location of the twelfth Ministerial Conference at the General Council session on Monday-Tuesday. The 12th MC was postponed from June 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the continued challenges from the pandemic the likely date will be the end of 2021. Kazakhstan which had offered to host the conference in 2020 and again in the summer of 2021 has recently indicated a willingness to host in December of this year as well. The ministerial had originally been scheduled for June because of challenging weather conditions in Kazakhstan in December. See TWELFTH SESSION OF THE MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE, COMMUNICATION FROM KAZAKHSTAN, 8 February 2021, WT/GC/229 (24 February 2021)(embedded below).
Deputy Director-General Wolff will provide a statement on the annual report on WTO accessions. The report is WTO ACCESSIONS, 2020 ANNUAL REPORT BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL, WT/ACC/38, WT/GC/228 (18 February 2021). Activity on accessions was challenged by the pandemic and inability to travel/hold in person meetings. More technical assistance and virtual meetings were held. Accessions are important for acceding governments in terms of promoting reforms at home and obtaining increased certainty in their international trade relations. Accessions are also an important benefit of membership for existing Members as acceding Members reduce tariffs and various non-tariff barriers to gain accession. The first eight paragraphs of the report provide an overview of activities in 2020 and are copied below.
“Overview of activities in 2020
“1. 2020 was an unprecedented year in recent history due the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and its consequences which have touched upon every single aspect of our lives in every corner of the world. It was a challenging year for the WTO, not least because the pandemic disrupted its core activities, especially during the first half of the year, and it also disrupted the international trade of Members, except for supplies of essential goods critical to combatting the health crisis as trade in these goods expanded dramatically. The difficulties and challenges arising from the pandemic were particularly pronounced in acceding governments due to the uncertainties of being outside of the multilateral trading system. In fact, the desire and urgency to be part of the WTO was never felt stronger than in the pandemic year. This was reflected in the level of accession activities in 2020, which was sustained vis-à-vis previous years, with a significant increase in technical assistance and outreach activities.
“2. The year for accessions started with the establishment of a new Working Party for the accession of Curaçao, a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (WTO Member), following its application for an independent membership as a separate customs territory pursuant to Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement. This constituted the 59th request by a state or separate customs territory for membership since the establishment of the Organization in 1995. In July, Turkmenistan was granted observer status in the WTO, with the understanding that it would apply for accession no later than in five years. This brought the total number of observer governments with the intention to accede to the WTO to 24, an increase by five since 2016 when Afghanistan and Liberia became the Organization’s most recent Members. The continuing interest to become part of the multilateral trading system is a testament to the attraction and relevance of its values and principles for all economies, regardless of their size or level of development.
“3. The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly hampered or delayed the technical work by acceding governments, Members and the Secretariat to prepare for, engage in and follow up on Working Party meetings. However, thanks to the firm commitment of the acceding governments to advance their work, four Working Parties met, including through the use of virtual platforms that connected the acceding governments which were unable to travel to Geneva. One acceding government had to cancel its already scheduled meeting due to the suspension of all WTO meetings in March. Out of the four accession Working Party meetings held in 2020, three were on LDC accessions (Ethiopia, Comoros and Timor-Leste). In two cases – the Working Parties of Ethiopia and Uzbekistan – this also represented the formal resumption of accession processes after several years of inactivity (8 and 15 years, respectively), signalling their desire to use WTO membership negotiations to drive domestic economic reforms, which have broader implications in the regions where they are located.
“4. When the pandemic halted planned missions, technical assistance, and outreach activities which required air travel, the Secretariat rapidly shifted the mode of operation to virtual format and took advantage of the opportunities provided thereby. In addition to the formal accession Working Party meetings which took place via Interprefy, the Accessions Division organised virtual technical meetings and briefing sessions with acceding governments, Working Party Chairpersons and partners in support of accessions. Moreover, the Division delivered a number of technical assistance, training and outreach activities in response to articulated needs of acceding governments, using various virtual platforms, such as MS Teams, Zoom and WebEx. In fact, the number of activities delivered by the Division and of participants who attended or were trained in 2020 exceeded considerably the numbers in previous years.
“5. One of the novel outreach programs developed in 2020 was two week-long activities which consisted of a series of webinars combining lectures, training and panel discussions. The first Accessions Week was organised from 29 June to 3 July, and the first edition of the Trade for Peace Week took place from 30 November to 4 December. These virtual events brought together a large number of resource persons and panellists from around the world and reached out to a larger number of participants, in a highly cost-effective manner, in comparison with traditional in-person activities. While the full values and benefits of in-person interaction cannot be replaced or replicated, the Accessions Week enabled the Secretariat to remain engaged with acceding governments and Members, experts and partners, beyond Geneva and around the world. The Trade for Peace Week provided an effective networking platform to expand the WTO’s partnership with the peace and humanitarian communities in support of fragile and conflict affected (FCA) countries in accession.
“6. The importance of collaboration and cooperation with partners was never felt more strongly than in 2020. The Secretariat made concerted efforts to enhance and expand the “Trade for Peace through WTO Accession” Initiative to support FCA countries in accession and those recently acceded to the WTO. In 2020, nine acceding governments were identified as being in a FCA situation according to the World Bank’s classification1, while conflicts emerged or resurged in some others. The pandemic hit hardest countries which had already been suffering from years of conflict, political crises, drought and other natural disasters, compounded by declines of the price of oil and other commodities. Nonetheless, some FCA acceding LDCs showed remarkable resilience in sustaining their engagement in accession. The Working Party on the Accession of the Union of Comoros resumed its work with determination to finalise the process as soon as possible. The Working Party on the Accession of Timor-Leste activated the Working Party by holding its first meeting nearly four years after its establishment, despite various challenges faced on the domestic front. Moreover, Somalia submitted its Memorandum on the Foreign Trade Regime, the base document to start its accession engagement with Members. Furthermore, the Secretariat continued to provide support to the g7+ WTO Accessions Group, which was coordinated by Afghanistan.
“7. The year 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the WTO. The Secretariat used its annual flagship event, the China Round Table on WTO Accessions, to review the contributions made by accessions to the multilateral trading system since 1995. The event also provided an opportunity for an exchange of ideas to explore the future expansion of WTO membership towards universality, including through possible improvements in the accession process. The year also marked a significant anniversary milestone for five Article XII Members2 – Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Jordan and Oman which joined the WTO in 2000, the year with the largest number of new members to date. Other anniversary milestones included the fifth anniversaries of Membership of Kazakhstan and Seychelles and the fifteenth anniversary for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, membership anniversaries have become an important occasion to reflect on the benefits and values of being part of the Organization.
“8. Finally, the thematic focus of the 2020 Annual Report was on the complementarities and synergies in negotiating WTO membership and regional trade agreements. Almost all acceding governments are involved in regional integration initiatives in parallel with their efforts to achieve WTO membership. The highlight of the year was the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to which all African WTO applicants are signatories. The Report’s thematic section builds on the rich discussions held on the topic during the 2020 Regional Dialogues on WTO Accessions for Africa and for the Arab Region, as well as other meetings on Central Asia and Eurasia. It aims to explore key opportunities and challenges that may arise in a simultaneous pursuit of regional and global integration efforts and to provide a checklist of issues for trade negotiators to consider in maximising the benefits from the participation in multiple trade arrangements.”
Waiver of TRIPS Obligations During COVID-19 Pandemic
The sixth agenda item involves the effort from India and South Africa with a number of other developing or least developed countries to obtain a waiver from most TRIPS obligations on medical goods needed for the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a very controversial issue with developed countries with pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of vaccines and other items opposing the waiver on the basis of existing flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement and on the global efforts through the WHO, GAVI and CEPI to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries through COVAX with financial contributions from many countries, NGOs and others. See, e.g., 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/
Agenda item 7 is entitled “Supporting the Conclusion of Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations for the Sustainability of the Ocean and Fishing Communities — Draft Ministerial Decision — Communication from Brazil (WT/GC/W/815. The draft Ministerial Decision is an effort by Brazil to highlight the critical aspect of the negotiations which is to address environmental sustainability and presumably reflects Brazil’s concerns with the efforts of so many Members to protect their subsidies versus ensuring sustainable fishing. The document is embedded below.
As reviewed in the incoming Director-General’s statement on February 15 and the summary of her statement by DDG Wolff on February 25, an important aspect of ongoing work at the WTO is a number of Joint Statement Initiatives that were started at the end of the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, including on e-commerce/digital trade.
Agenda item 10 is a frontal attack on such initiatives by India and South Africa through their paper, “Legal Status of Joint Statement Initiatives and Their Negotiated Outcomes”, WT/GC/819. I had reviewed the submission in an earlier post. See February 20, 2021, Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/. The agenda item will like see many delegations take the floor to support the use of joint statement initiatives within the WTO or to oppose them. While there won’t be a resolution of the issue, the challenge to the process could significantly handicap some of the efforts envisioned by the incoming Director-General to help developing and least developed countries take advantage of the e-commerce/digital trade world and eventually participate in talks and/or in an agreement. WT/GC/W/819 is embedded below.
Agenda item 8 is viewed as related to agenda item 10. India has been seeking to limit WTO consideration of e-commerce issues to the multilateral efforts over many years within the existing Councils and Committees of the WTO (but where limited progress has been made).
COVID-19 and possible future pandemics — addressing existing trade restrictions and improving the functioning of the WTO to better handle in the future
The incoming Director-General has as a high priority to work with Members to improve monitoring of export restraints on medical goods and agricultural goods during the pandemic and working with Members to see that the WTO helps Members recover and better handle any future pandemics. The Ottawa Group had put forward a trade and health initiative in November 2020. See COVID-19 AND BEYOND: TRADE AND HEALTH, WT/GC/223 (24 November 2020). The communication was made by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland. The document contains an annex reviewing the types of actions Members could take to improve the response to the pandemic and improve conditions going forward. Included in the annex to the communication are sections on export restrictions; customs, services and technical regulations; tariffs; transparency and review; cooperation of the WTO with other organizations. Several paragraphs in the communication review the issue of possible export restrictions on vaccines and are copied below.
“9. We realize that the challenges related to the scarcity of essential medical goods, now alleviated to some extent by the response on the supply side, may be repeated at the moment of the development of a vaccine or new medical treatments. In this context, we welcome the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), a global pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines, managed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. This mechanism is critical in securing an equitable share of vaccines for all Members of the international community. As we strongly support the objective of this facility, we call on WTO Members to ensure that any export-restricting measures do not pose a barrier to the delivery of necessary supplies under the COVAX facility.
“10. We recognize the collaborative efforts of private and public stakeholders in the research and development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments. We encourage the industry to take actions to ensure access at affordable prices to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for vulnerable populations and support voluntary pooling and licensing of IP rights to accelerate the development of such diagnostics, treatments and vaccines and scaling up their production. We recognize the importance of the IP system in promoting R&D and innovation for access to effective treatments. We note that the flexibilities provided by the TRIPS Agreement and reaffirmed in the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health remain available to protect public health and to promote access to medicines for all.”
Canada will be providing an update on the initiative at the General Council meeting and will likely see many Members provide comments on the agenda item.
Agenda item 9 was added by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay reflecting concerns by them (and presumably many other trading partners) about actions taken by the European Union to exert control over exports of vaccines from the EU in light of EU concerns about its own access to vaccines from manufacturers. See CALL TO PREVENT EXPORT RESTRICTIONS ON COVID-19 VACCINES, WT/GC/818 (18 February 2021). The document is embedded below.
Since the EU is one of the Members who has pushed the trade and health initiative, there is concern by some WTO Members that its actions on vaccines run counter to the initiative it is supporting. Presumably the EU will argue that its actions are consistent with its rights under the WTO and is consistent with the language laid out in paragraphs 9 and 10 above.
The two agenda items are likely to show the concerns of many Members on equitable access to medical goods during the pandemic and the reluctance of at least some Members to reduce their flexibilities under the existing WTO rights and obligations.
DDG Wolff indicated that Members selected the incoming Director-General because she is “fearless in the face of daunting challenges”. There is no shortage of daunting challenges facing the WTO and its new Director-General. A few have been reviewed above.
The challenges the new Director-General and the WTO Members face will be made harder by the lack among Members of a common vision and agreed purpose of the WTO, by the current inability of the WTO system to address fundamentally different economic systems, by the structure of decision making, by the failure of obligations to be updated to match level of economic development and role in global trade and by the related issue of how special and differential treatment is used. These challenges have resulted in a negotiating function that is broken, in a dispute settlement system that has no checks on the reviewers for errors or failures to operate within the bounds of authority granted in the Dispute Settlement Understanding and in the underperformance of the monitoring and implementation function.