1. What’s the proposal?
In March 2022, the US, European Union, India and South Africa advanced a plan to temporarily waive enforcement of certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights — or Trips for short. The proposal would allow most developing nations to authorize the use of ingredients and processes needed to produce and supply vaccines without the consent of the right holder. The scope of the agreement is limited to Covid-19 vaccines and omits tests, therapeutics and other drugs. The agreement also sets an eligibility cap that excludes China.
2. What would lifting the protections mean for Covid vaccines?
If agreed by the WTO membership, a waiver would provide an important signal that those in eligible nations who replicate Covid-19 vaccine recipes and manufacturing processes won’t be subject to WTO-authorized sanctions. Proponents of the waiver say it would provide legal certainty for governments, companies and individuals to produce life-saving shots in places that currently lack significant access to them.
3. Who opposes the waiver?
The Chinese government objected to US demands to explicitly exclude China from the deal. The UK and Switzerland argue that the waiver would undermine investment and innovation in the pharmaceutical sector. Pfizer Inc. CEO Albert Bourla said it’s “madness” that such a deal is still under consideration at a time when supplies of vaccines are far outstripping demand. Public interest groups including Médecins Sans Frontières argue that the proposal is insufficient. For one thing, they say, it fails to provide vaccine producers access to trade secrets. For another, it doesn’t extend to Covid-19 treatments and diagnostics.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has actively campaigned for nations to approve the deal and called the inequity of access to vaccines “morally unacceptable.” The European Union supports the deal, which it says is the best chance for an outcome in the nearly two-year debate. While President Joe Biden has advocated for a vaccine waiver, his administration has not yet endorsed the current text and is facing political backlash in Congress from Republican lawmakers who oppose it. The other two nations that helped produce the proposal — India and South Africa — have also refrained from endorsing the deal, saying they want to reach a consensus outcome.
5. What are the major areas of disagreement?
The Biden administration wants the agreement to “clearly” exclude China due to US fears that Beijing won’t abide by its pledge to opt-out of the deal’s benefits. India, South Africa and other developing nations want to expand the scope of the agreement to cover Covid-19 therapeutics, diagnostics and other medicines. WTO members also disagree about how long the waiver should persist and whether eligible nations can export vaccines authorized under the deal.
6. Are there other ways to expand vaccine access?
Yes. WTO members are working on a separate agreement that aims to ease the distribution of vaccines and critical medical goods across borders. The framework seeks to discourage unnecessary export restrictions and tariffs on vital medical products.
7. How will the WTO decide on the waiver?
The WTO is a consensus-driven organization, so all 164 members must be in agreement for a TRIPS waiver to be implemented. Thus, any one nation can kill the proposal for any reason. Trade ministers are expected to debate the proposal during the WTO’s ministerial conference scheduled for June 12-15 in Geneva.
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