Vaccine patent waiver: WTO members work overtime

GENEVA: Talks for a first trade agreement in almost a decade were precariously poised just when it appeared that World Trade Organisation (WTO) members were close to sealing a deal on Thursday to check subsidies on unregulated fishing and allowing a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.

In the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and major supply chain disruptions, trade ministers held hope to provide a fresh push to global trade and help economic recovery across, until some countries raised the red flag on an agreement to regulate fisheries subsidies.

Negotiators, however, are still hopeful of a package under which members may agree on a limited patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, a move which will help in the fight against the deadly coronavirus infection, particularly in emerging and least developed countries.

The talks were extended by a day amid a deep rupture in trade relations globally. Until late evening, the UK was holding back a final deal, upset over not being part of the core group, while the EU was part of the detailed engagements. By all accounts, members are keen to reach an outcome at a time when the global economy is gripped by uncertainty due to the Ukraine war and soaring inflationary pressures.

“The entire leadership present here has worked constructively. India is convinced that this will turn out to be one of the most successful ministerial meetings that the WTO has seen in a long time. We will make some solid decisions probably after seven years, subject to a few issues being sorted out in the next few minutes… But nothing is done until everything is done,” commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal told reporters as negotiations continued until Thursday evening.

A hiccup in any of the areas can result in a collapse of the entire package. With the patent waiver in place, governments around the world can start authorising pro- duction of vaccines without restrictions on exports. India’s demand for a similar benefit for therapeutics and devices with the flexibility to be made available for five years. Over 100 members of the agency, looking to remain relevant, have agreed to ensure that supplies to the World Food Programme will not face an export ban, unless a country sees a threat to its own food security.

“It is a good gesture as it will be done without jeopardising a country’s food security. But funding is the real problem for WFP,” said an official. While the demand for government-to-government sale of foodgrains from the public stocks was not accepted immediately, officials said it will be linked to a permanent solution to public stockholding. Some of the countries, including Ukraine, had opposed the pitch for govern- ment-to-government sales, even as others such as Egypt and Sri Lanka had backed New Delhi’s suggestion.

Indian officials said the demand for negotiations on other farm subsidies or a reform programme for WTO were blocked by them as the earlier work programme on finding a permanent solution to the peace clause had not seen much progress. Government officials said India’s concerns had been met and the delegation played a crucial role in thrashing out a deal, which is expected to bar countries from providing subsidies to unregulated and unreported fishing. They said disciplines around “over-fishing and over-capacity” have been excluded from what many described as an “interim agreement”.

The fisheries agreement will also come with other requirements, such as, seizing vessels undertaking illegal or unreported fishing. TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 drugs, therapeutics and devices has been a key demand for India and South Africa, which is now expected to be part of the Covid-19 response to the pandemic with other elements including mutual recognition for services such as telemedicine.

Government officials said that there is a commitment to negotiate a deal for devices and therapeutics, which are seen to be more crucial now given the requirement to treat Covid-19 patients and test them. Officials said that the patent waiver plan will also gear up countries around the world to respond to pandemics quickly in the future.