COVID-19, Intellectual property

WTO TRIPS waiver: EU puts vaccination production and exports first

The global news cycle is dominated today by the decision by the United States to support the idea of a waiver on intellectual property rules enshrined in the World Trade Organization.

The waiver proposed by India and South Africa in 2020 has been a contentious topic in the WTO. The two countries proposed to waive copyright, industrial design, patent and trade secret protections for COVID-19 related medical products – not only vaccines – enshrined in the 1994 TRIPS agreement.

But early signs of potential movement of the United States have prompted Delhi and Pretoria to revise their waiver – which experts believe will be watered down to make it palatable to a wider WTO membership.

In return, the United States dropped on Wednesday (5 May 2021) its long-held hard-line stance on intellectual pharmaceutical patent protection at international level.

USTR Katherine Tai’s announcement turned around the entire debate at global level.

The US’ precise intentions are not clear. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization needed to make that happen,” the USTR stated.

USTR Katherine Tai also stated: “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

The United States bombshell u-turn on long held positions put European countries such as the EU, UK or Switzerland in a PR bind.

The EU responded almost immediately with its own PR push.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen put forward the EU’s exports and international deliveries of vaccines – where the United States has lagged. “The EU is at the forefront of deliveries of effective vaccines to the rest of the world,” said von der Leyen, arguing that the EU had delivered more than 200 million doses worldwide.

The EU is pushing for limits on export restrictions on pandemic-related medical products and vaccines as part of a trade and health initiative led by the Ottawa Group. The Biden administration has not made any statement so far in favour of any limitations to export controls of vaccines.

“We are ready to assess how the US proposal could help achieve that objective,” said von der Leyen. “In the short term, however, we call upon all vaccine production countries to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains.”

Internal market commissioner Thierry Breton echoed his boss’ views.

Speaking at a transatlantic conference on Thursday (6 May 2021), Breton said: “When we will have ramped up production it will be time to open patents”. Breton indicated that one year was needed to have sufficient global production to meet global demand.

The EU commissioner also said: “These patents are mainly European patents.”

WTO members will hold a new meeting in the second half of May to consider a revised Indian-South African TRIPS waiver.

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