GENEVA (AP) - The World Trade Organization chief appealed to member countries on Wednesday to quickly present and negotiate over a text that could temporarily ease trade rules that protect COVID-19 vaccine technology, as a way to ramp access to doses at a time of urgent need.
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries that have been wrangling over the issue, but agree on the need for wider access to COVID-19 treatments, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.
The WTO’s General Council - made up of ambassadors - was taking up the pivotal issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools that South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support in the developing world and among some progressive lawmakers in the West.
“What was striking about today was this very strong declaration by all members on this shared objective - which is ramping up production and distribution of these vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics in the developing world, where there is a great inequity in terms of of distribution,” Rockwell told reporters, summarizing the debate.
The United States, among other rich countries that have hesitated about or outright opposed the idea, is shaping up as a potential lynchpin - with the Biden administration seemingly on the fence about the matter.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted Wednesday that Biden had expressed support for similar waiver ideas during his campaign, but as president is running “a process … that includes all stakeholders in the administration.”
“And that process will take a series of months, and requires a unanimous point of view to move forward,” she told reporters in Washington. “We take intellectual property incredibly seriously, and we also, though, are in the midst of a historic global pandemic, which requires a range of creative solutions.”
“We’re looking at it through that prism,” Psaki added. “I expect we’ll have more, now that the WTO meetings are underway, we’ll have more to say very soon on this.”
Rockwell said most member states “would say this is the most important issue facing our organization today.”
“I’m not going to put odds on on how likely it is to find an agreement,” he said. “But when people begin to voice very clearly their shared objectives, it makes it easier to get to ‘yes.’”
The pace of efforts at the Geneva-based trade body have been outstripped by the speed of the spread of the pandemic. The World Health Organization across town said earlier Wednesday that weekly case counts have been at record highs in the last two weeks.
Rockwell said a WTO panel on intellectual property was set to take up the waiver proposal again at a “tentative” meeting later this month, before a formal meeting on June 8-9.
No consensus — which is required under WTO rules — was expected to emerge from the ambassadors’ two-day meeting on Wednesday and Thursday. But Rockwell pointed to a change in tone after months of wrangling.
“I would say that the discussion was far more constructive, pragmatic. It was less emotive and less finger pointing than it had been in the past,” Rockwell said, citing a surge in cases in places like India. “I think that this feeling of everyone-being-in-it- together was being expressed in a way that I had not heard to this point.”
Authors of the proposal, which has faced resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical and biotech industries, have been revising it in hopes of making it more palatable.
Okonjo-Iweala, in her remarks posted on the WTO Web site, said it was “incumbent on us to move quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to begin and undertake text-based negotiations.”
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward,” that is “acceptable to all sides,” she said.
Co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between different diplomatic missions to make their case, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. A deadlock persists, and opposing sides remain far apart, the official said.
Some proponents saw more hope for the proposal after Biden’s top envoy on trade, Katherine Tai, said last month that gaping inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines between developed and developing countries were “completely unacceptable,” and that mistakes made in the global response to the HIV pandemic mustn’t be repeated.
The argument, part of a long-running debate about intellectual property protections, centers on lifting patents, copyrights, and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages. The aim is to suspend the rules for several years, just long enough to beat down the pandemic.
The issue has become more pressing with a surge in cases in India, the world’s second-most populous country and a key producer of vaccines - including one for COVID-19 that relies on technology from Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca.
Proponents, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolbox and insist there’s no better time to use them than during the once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken 3.2 million lives, infected more than 437 million people and devastated economies.
More than 100 countries have come out in support of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of Congress - all fellow Democrats of Biden - sent him a letter last month that called on him to support the waiver.
Opponents say a waiver would be no panacea. They insist that production of coronavirus vaccines is complex and simply can’t be ramped up by easing intellectual property, and say lifting protections could hurt future innovation.
Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report from New York.
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