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No breakthrough yet at WTO on universal access to life-saving vaccines

ORGANISATIONS yesterday said the World Trade Organisation was so close, yet so far in approving the Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Trade waiver. Image, Timothy Bernard, ANA.

ORGANISATIONS yesterday said the World Trade Organisation was so close, yet so far in approving the Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Trade waiver. Image, Timothy Bernard, ANA.

Published Jun 14, 2022

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Developing countries and the civil rights movement have continued calling for the global pharmaceuticals to fix the patent laws on technologies for the development of vaccines to enable universal access to life-saving drugs.

Organisations yesterday said that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was so close, yet so far in approving the Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Trade (TRIPS) waiver.

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The WTO 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva yesterday announced that there was progress in talks with big pharmaceuticals on patent laws regarding vaccines.

WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala voiced "cautious optimism" that member countries will ultimately reach an agreement on patents.

South Africa and India have led the charge for improving access to Covid-19 diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics through the TRIPS waiver proposal.

The TRIPS waiver was proposed as a critical global action to shore up more equitable production and distribution of vaccines and treatment amidst an unprecedented global health emergency.

Suspension of several provisions under TRIPS was proposed as a way to address the barriers to scale up global manufacturing, and facilitate more equitable access to vaccines and treatment.

Activists have been saying that unless the WTO can agree to a genuine waiver, the grotesque inequity seen with the first generation of Covid-19 vaccines will only repeat itself.

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Advocacy adviser for South Africa at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Candice Sehoma, said the proposed text by the WTO on the TRIPS waiver was far from satisfactory.

"We are extremely disappointed to see that even after 20 months of deliberations and more than 15 million deaths due to Covid, the negotiations are still eons away from ensuring access to lifesaving Covid medical tools for everyone, everywhere," Sehoma said.

"The draft decision text is based on a problematic text from early May and is substantively different from the real waiver proposal we have been supporting. What we are seeing so far is some limited changes, not real progress."

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Last month, Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel told Parliament that a draft Patents Amendment Bill would be sent to Cabinet by October.

Patel yesterday said there were new challenges since the formation of the WTO 28 years ago, pointing, among others, to supply-chain disruptions as a result of integrated systems and more pronounced geo-political tensions.

“The WTO will need to reinvent itself for the new age; be more flexible and promote stronger development outcomes,” Patel said.

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“We need a rules-based system to promote global prosperity, to do so inclusively; and to not rely on the law of the jungle, where power alone defines who eats and who gets eaten.”

In Geneva, Tanzania’s Minister for Trade and Industrial Development Omar Said Shaaban said his country was more concerned with the outcomes of the TRIPS waiver.

“The United Republic of Tanzania, like many other developing members and least developed countries, is looking forward to a meaningful decision which will assist members to ramp up and diversify production and supply of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

“The decision should provide flexibilities in addition to the ones contained in the WTO TRIPS Agreement and the Doha Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.”

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