Cape Times

Science has delivered; will WTO do so?

- BRAJENDRA NAVNIT Navnit is the Ambassador and Permanent Representa­tive of India to WTO

A PROPOSAL by India, South Africa and eight other countries calls on the World Trade Organizati­on (WTO) to exempt member countries from enforcing some patents, and other Intellectu­al Property (IP) rights under the organisati­on’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectu­al Property Rights, known as TRIPS, for a limited time.

This is to ensure that Intellectu­al Property rights do not restrict the rapid scaling-up of manufactur­ing of Covid19 vaccines and treatments. While a few members have raised concerns about the proposal, a large number of WTO members support it. It has also received the backing of internatio­nal organisati­ons, multilater­al agencies and global civil society.

Unpreceden­ted times call for unorthodox measures. We saw this in the efficacy of strict lockdowns for a limited period, as a policy interventi­on, in curtailing the spread of the pandemic. The Internatio­nal Monetary Fund (IMF) in its October 2020 edition of World Economic Outlook states, however, that the risk of worse growth outcomes than projected remains sizeable. If the virus resurges, progress on treatments and vaccines is slower than anticipate­d, or countries’ access to them remains unequal. Economic activity could be lower than expected, with renewed physical distancing and tighter lockdowns.

The situation appears to be grimmer than predicted. We have already lost 7% of economic output from the baseline scenario projected in 2019. It translates to a loss of more than $6 trillion (about R88 trillion) of global GDP. Even a 1% improvemen­t in global GDP from the baseline scenario will add more than $800 billion in global output, offsetting the loss certainly of a much lower order to a sector of economy on account of the Waiver.

Merely a signal to ensure timely and affordable access to vaccines and treatments will work as a big confidence booster for demand revival in the economy. With the emergence of successful vaccines, there appears to be some hope on the horizon. But how will these be made accessible and affordable to the global population?

The fundamenta­l question is whether there will be enough Covid19 vaccines to go around. As things stand, even the most optimistic scenarios today cannot assure access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeuti­cs for the majority of the population in rich as well as poor countries by the end of 2021.

All the members of the WTO have agreed on one account that there is an urgent need to scale-up the manufactur­ing capacity for vaccines and therapeuti­cs to meet the massive global needs. The TRIPS Waiver Proposal seeks to fulfil this need by ensuring that IP barriers do not come in the way of such scaling up of manufactur­ing capacity.

Why are existing flexibilit­ies under the TRIPS Agreement not enough?

The existing flexibilit­ies under the TRIPS Agreement are not adequate as these were not designed keeping pandemics in mind. Compulsory licences are issued on a country by country, case by case and product by product basis, where every jurisdicti­on with an IP regime would have to issue separate compulsory licences, practicall­y making collaborat­ion among countries extremely onerous.

While we encourage the use of TRIPS flexibilit­ies, the same are time-consuming and cumbersome to implement. Hence, only their use cannot ensure the timely access of affordable vaccines and treatments. Similarly, we have not seen encouragin­g progress on WHO’s Covid19-Technology Access Pool or the C-TAP initiative, which encourages voluntary contributi­on of IP, technology and data to support the global sharing and scale-up of the manufactur­ing of Covid-19 medical products.

Voluntary Licences, even where they exist, are shrouded in secrecy. Their terms and conditions are not transparen­t. Their scope is limited to specific amounts or for a limited subset of countries, thereby encouragin­g nationalis­m rather than true internatio­nal collaborat­ion.

Why is there a need to go beyond existing global co-operation initiative­s?

Global co-operation initiative­s such as the Covax Mechanism and the ACT-Accelerato­r are inadequate to meet the massive global needs of 7.8 billion people. The ACT-A initiative aims to procure 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of next year and distribute them fairly around the world. With a two-dose regimen, however, this will only cover 1 billion people. That means that even if ACT-A is fully financed and successful, which is now not the case, there would not be enough vaccines for most of the global population.

During the first few months of the pandemic, shelves were emptied by those who had access to masks, PPEs, sanitisers, gloves and other essential Covid-19 items even without their immediate need. The same should not happen to vaccines.

Eventually, the world was able to ramp up manufactur­ing of Covid-19 essentials as there were no IP barriers hindering that. Now we need the same pooling of IP rights and know-how for scaling up the manufactur­ing of vaccines and treatments, which unfortunat­ely has not been forthcomin­g, necessitat­ing the need for the Waiver.

It is the pandemic – an extraordin­ary event – that has mobilised the collaborat­ion of multiple stakeholde­rs. It is knowledge and skills held by scientists, researcher­s, public health experts and universiti­es that have enabled the cross-country collaborat­ions and enormous public funding that has facilitate­d the developmen­t of vaccines in record time – and not alone IP!

The TRIPS waiver proposal is a targeted and proportion­ate response to the exceptiona­l public health emergency that the world faces today. Such a Waiver is well within the provisions of Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement which establishe­d the WTO.

It can help in ensuring that human lives are not lost for want of a timely and affordable access to vaccines. The adoption of the Waiver will also re-establish WTO’s credibilit­y and show that multilater­al trading system continues to be relevant and can deliver in times of a crisis. Now is the time for WTO members to act and adopt the Waiver to save lives and help in getting the world economy back on the revival path quickly.

While making the vaccines available was a test of science, making them accessible and affordable is going to be a test of humanity. History should remember us for the “AAA rating” i.e. for Availabili­ty, Accessibil­ity and Affordabil­ity of Covid19 vaccines and treatments and not for a single “A rating” for Availabili­ty only. Our future generation­s deserve nothing less.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa