The US remained non-committal on the move by India and South Africa to get Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for COVID-19 vaccine before the WTO so that the doses are accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income countries.
The move by India, South Africa and several other countries has been supported by more than 60 top American lawmakers, most of whom are progressives.
US Trade Representatives Katherine Tai, in her address to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) virtual conference on COVID-19 vaccine equity on Wednesday, however, did not weigh in on the request made by India and South Africa.
The virtual conference was attended and addressed by her Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal, Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis of the European Union, and Minister Ebrahim Patel of South Africa on Wednesday.
“I have had a chance already to have very meaningful preliminary conversations with each of you. I am committed to finding ways to partner with you on the issues before us today and more broadly,” Katherine Tai said.
Acknowledging that there is still a gaping divide between developed and developing countries when it comes to access to medicines, she said that this was seen during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where various policies and actions constrained access to medicines, contributing to unnecessary deaths and suffering.
“We must learn from, and not repeat, the tragedies and mistakes of the past. The Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, for example, was born out of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and we all – both in government and in the private sector – need to do our parts to live up to its spirit,” Katherine Tai said.
But there are many aspects of the institution of the WTO and its rules that have not adapted to a changed world, a changed membership, changed practices and expectations.
“We must ensure that this time of crisis and suffering leads to breakthroughs and progress,” Ms Tai said in her address.
“We hope to hear more today about how the market once again has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries. As part of that we have to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary to reflect what we have learned,” she said.
Later at the end of the conference, WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the speakers agree that it’s not acceptable for people and countries to have to wait indefinitely for vaccines.
“We do not want to repeat experiences of the past,” she said.
“It was agreed that production capacity needs to be expanded, particularly in developing and least developed countries and emerging markets. And that vaccine distribution needs to be more effective and more equitable,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
“Various perspectives about the TRIPS agreement, and whether the existing flexibilities are enough to address developing country needs were put on the table. These echoed the discussions on the waiver proposal going on in the TRIPS Council, and I want to reiterate that today is a way of contributing to that discussion,” she said.
“I agree with the view that the WTO is a logical forum for finding a way forward on these issues, and I hope that the ideas raised here will contribute to convergence in the TRIPS Council on meaningful results that can contribute to the goals that we have,” WTO Director General said.
In a statement, Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines, demanded that the US should support the TRIPS waiver.
“Despite US support for COVAX, it will be difficult to earn goodwill if the United States continues to block partner countries’ efforts to make medical tools. The US should support the TRIPS Waiver and step in with leadership to make vaccines for the billions of people who are still waiting,” he said.
“The US should support the efforts of partner nations to protect their people and expand access to COVID treatments, tests, protective equipment and vaccines, by endorsing the temporary suspension of the WTO intellectual property rules proposed by South Africa and India,” Maybarduk said.
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