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WTO Cancels Meeting, Delaying Vote on IP Waiver for COVID Vaccines

November 30, 2021 by Dan McCue
WTO Cancels Meeting, Delaying Vote on IP Waiver for COVID Vaccines
Concrete blocks and barriers were installed to protect the access to the World Trade Organization headquarters, WTO, in order to secure the premises to host the WTO12 in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

GENEVA, Switzerland — The World Trade Organization has postponed its first ministerial meeting in four years, citing concerns over the new coronavirus variant.

The move will effectively delay a vote on a waiver sought by several developing countries on the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and other treatments.

On Friday, President Joe Biden said he supports a waiver for the vaccines. But with new travel restrictions in place due to the omicron variant, many WTO ministers simply had no way of reaching Geneva.

And no new date has been set for a rescheduled meeting.

That didn’t sit well with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who said Tuesday the delay to address vaccine inequality between prosperous countries and developing nations “undermines our ability to confront this crisis.”

“We cannot postpone or delay,” Sanders said in a statement. “It’s time for the WTO and our world leaders to step up, to finally put people over profits and make the vaccine technologies available to all, regardless of wealth.”

Leading pharmaceutical industry groups maintain weakening patent protections will have a range of unintended consequences, including potentially undermining the quality of vaccine the currently unvaccinated will receive.

Thomas Cueni, director general of the  International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), told The Well News via email that his organization has been calling for urgent action to address vaccine equity for some time. 

“But we disagree that the solution to address this is an IP waiver,” Cueni said. “In fact, in the year since the IP waiver has been proposed, the scale up of vaccines is such that the manufacturing output of big pharma, developing world vaccine manufacturers, together with biotechs and contract manufacturers have produced enough vaccines. The issue is not scarcity of supply, it is an issue of uneven distribution.”

When the IP waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa last year, Cueni said, the IFPMA stated that the waiver would be a drastic step which did not take into account the specific challenges of producing vaccines. 

“Since then, it can demonstrably be shown that it is an extreme measure trying to address an unproven problem,” he said. “The IP waiver proposals sought to address the issue of production scale up. According to Airfinity’s latest data, industry is on track to produce 12 billion does by the end of 2021 and by June 2022, at least a further 10 billion. This is being done without an IP waiver in place, so clearly IP is clearly not a barrier.” 

Cueni noted that India has greatly benefited from the sharing of technology. It is among what he described as the top 3 COVID-19 vaccine production super-powers (China, the EU and the US); and it has secured a major contract with COVAX to provide vaccines for Africa. 

“Unfortunately, the export ban imposed by the Indian government when COVID-19 swept through the country in April, has still not been lifted,” he said.

“Both the vaccines and therapeutics industry has entered into an unprecedented number of collaborations (335 for vaccines and 114 for therapeutics), with the majority involving the transfer of technology,” Cueni said. “The first major collaborations were being drawn up with companies in India and South Africa before the proposed IP waiver was on the table and before a single COVID-19 vaccine had been approved.

“Since then, collaborations have continued unabated. Just today, Johnson & Johnson announced a license deal with Aspen in South Africa. Pfizer, even before receiving marketing approval for their therapeutic, had entered into a license agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool which would cover 53% of the population through this one collaboration,” he added.

“To our knowledge, there has been no single incidence where IP has been a barrier to COVID-19 vaccines or treatments; to the contrary, IP has been an enabler,” Cueni said. “It is because of the investment in research and development and a predictable IP system that we were able to bring to market more than one viable vaccine in less than a year as well as 127 vaccines that are currently in clinical trials.  and its why we were able to enter into unencumbered voluntary licenses and technology transfer arrangements with trusted partners across the world. If the aim is to address production capacity, then industry is already meeting the projected numbers for this year and next, which is enough to vaccinate the adult population.”

Last week, the WHO classified the omicron or B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa as a “variant of concern,” saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of the virus. 

But scientists and the White House have said there’s still much that is unknown about the variant, including whether current vaccine regimens are enough to thwart it.

As previously reported by The Well News, on Monday Biden said the new variant is a cause for concern, but not panic.

He also urged all Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to have their children vaccinated as well.

“Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted. If you’re 18 years old and vaccinated … before you do anything else today …  go get a booster shot,” the president said. “They’re free and available in 80,000 locations coast to coast. Do not wait. Go get your booster if it’s time for you to do so. And if you are not vaccinated, now’s the time to get vaccinated and take your children to be vaccinated. Every child aged five or older can get safe, effective vaccines now.”

“For additional protection, wear a face mask when you are indoors or in public settings around other people,” he said.

On Friday, Switzerland, home to the WTO, banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region, and imposed test and quarantine requirements on travel from other countries, including Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

The Geneva-based trade body had planned a meeting in person, but the new restrictions meant delegations of large players such as South Africa and the Brussels-based European Commission would have been limited to a largely virtual presence.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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