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Thursday, December 09, 2021

The pandemic is an opportunity to correct some historical wrongs

Sachin Chaturvedi writes: The 12th Ministerial Conference of WTO must grant TRIPs waiver for vaccines, Covid-related medical supplies

Written by Sachin Chaturvedi |
Updated: November 26, 2021 8:12:32 am
Health worker vacinate a beneficiary at an urban primary health center in Nerul, Navi Mumbai (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

In the run-up to the 12th ministerial conference (MC-12) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), access to vaccines has emerged as the most contentious issue. The role of associated intellectual property, in the context of the pandemic, is being discussed since India and South Africa placed their joint proposal at the WTO in October 2020 and a revised proposal in May 2021. Though the TRIPs limitation for latecomers to the technology race was always described by developing countries as a historical injustice, the recent Covid-19 pandemic is being seen as the final wake-up call for doing away with the historical wrongs in global norm-setting multilateral institutions.

With the support of more than 100 low-income countries, India’s leadership of the South is well-established. With the further enrichment of the R&D eco-system and the prime minister’s direct engagement, India’s efforts towards excellence in the domestic production of vaccines with its own R&D have further given a boost to New Delhi’s negotiating position at the WTO.

In the next couple of days is the final round of debates on whether a temporary TRIPs waiver is a step in the right direction. Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, Chair, Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is expected to come out with a text for further negotiations at the Ministerial Conference. During the recent visit of WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to Delhi, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal emphatically raised the issue of equity and suggested an early outcome of the ongoing text-based negotiations at the WTO on Covid-19-related medical products, including vaccines. Unfortunately, even after a year, it seems that WTO members’ positions remain divergent on the appropriate and most effective way to address issues related to access, equity and inclusion (AEI) for Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products.

As is fairly clear, left to big pharma, the vaccines would not have reached many countries. India led from the front — the Vaccine Maitri programme worked on the premise that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. Through this initiative, India could supply more than 65 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to about 100 countries. Besides, India also provided critical medicines, diagnostic kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment to more than 150 countries. Due to New Delhi’s pressure, global supply lines have remained open throughout for key components of vaccines being produced in India and elsewhere. India has significantly contributed to the COVAX facility (which is co-led by CEPI, Gavi and WHO, alongside key delivery partner UNICEF) as well. India has also gifted 2,00,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines for UN peacekeepers across all UN missions. After the major disruption with the second wave within India, now it seems the decision to resume exports is being implemented.

The MC-12 should go a step further and acknowledge the willingness of the South in creating global public good. As may be recalled, India was also one of the initiators of the “Political Declaration on Equitable Global Access to Covid-19 Vaccines” in March 2021. This Declaration has garnered the support of more than 180 UN member states. It pledged to treat Covid-19 vaccination as a global public good (GPG) by ensuring affordable, equitable and fair access to vaccines for all. It called for rapid scaling up and expansion of vaccine production globally, including in developing countries, through appropriate dissemination of technology and know-how, for example, through using WTO TRIPS flexibilities. But it’s very much clear that without having the TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products, such scaling up and enhancement of production capacity is not feasible.

India is a vaccine supplier, not a recipient in waiting. It has remained steadfastly committed to this idea despite pressure from the European Union, United Kingdom and Switzerland. These countries are preventing access to vaccines for poor countries, making them suffer and leading to loss of life. India has clearly stated in the UN General Assembly meeting that vaccine inequity will defeat the collective global resolve to contain the coronavirus as the disparity in the accessibility of vaccines will affect the poorest nations the most. At the same time, it is utterly frustrating to read the recent news about the wastage of 6,00,000 vaccine doses in the UK, which is a great loss to poorer countries struggling to access Covid-19 vaccines.

Though it remains to be seen whether WTO members will reach an agreement on these issues before or at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, planned for 30 November 30- December 3 at Geneva (co-hosted by Kazakhstan), it’s high time for the global community to act collectively and urgently to address one of the most pressing global health challenges impacting humanity. It must do so to avoid plunging into a catastrophic moral failure as a result of its indifferent approach and unequal sharing of products and technical know-how. India is committed to continuing its efforts and to lead from the front to ensure the meaningful completion and implementation of the TRIPs waiver in favour of developing and least developed countries. In this regard, all eyes are looking for a positive outcome of the MC-12 as far as the TRIPs waiver is concerned. This can ensure AEI for developing countries.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2021 under the title ‘A waiver for humanity’. The writer is director general, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS). Views are personal

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