WTO ministerial: civil society groups urge ministers to reject TRIPS waiver text

From left: Filipe de Carvalho (MSF Access Campaign), Anna Marriott (Oxfam GB), Winnie Byanyima (UNAIDS) and Baone Twala (Section27) addressing the media on the draft TRIPS waiver text. (Photo: MSF Access Campaign)

As WTO Ministerial Conference nears its end, civil society organisations urged participating countries to push for a full IP waiver on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

Civil society organisations including The People’s Vaccine Alliance, Oxfam, Section27 of South Africa and MSF on Wednesday urged trade ministers participating in World Trade Organization negotiations not to accept the current form of the TRIPS waiver agreement, calling the draft text “inadequate”.

Speaking to the media in Geneva, UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima said that opposition by rich countries to the original TRIPS waiver “replicates colonial racial hierarchies”.

She added that the current document on the table at the WTO will set a dangerous precedent and raise the intellectual property barrier for HIV technologies. Over 150 civil society organisations have signed an open letter addressed to the ministers at the WTO conference, urging them to reject the current draft and demand a meaningful, effective TRIPS waiver agreement.

A full IP waiver, as originally proposed, is being opposed by a handful of countries including the UK, Switzerland, the US and the European Union.

Baone Twala, a legal researcher with Section27, said that postponing the decision to include therapeutics and diagnostics in the agreement for six more months will lead to further loss of lives.

Anna Marriott, a health policy manager for Oxfam Great Britain stated that the failure of negotiations to deliver a meaningful outcome after two years is down to the conduct of the EU, UK, Switzerland and the US.

“The rich countries blocked the waiver for a year, refusing to even negotiate. Millions died during this time… A choice between the status quo and the negotiating text in its current form is a choice between doing nothing and putting up more barriers to access to medicines,” she added.

The draft document that is being widely panned by rights groups suggests IP waivers only for Covid-19 vaccines, thereby excluding therapeutics and diagnostic tools. This is sharply in contrast with the 2020-proposal made by countries like South Africa and India suggesting a complete temporary IP waiver. The draft document also excludes countries like China that has, in fact, exported around 30 per cent of the global supply of vaccines mainly to developing countries.

Pointing out the delay in vaccines reaching Latin America due to global scarcity, Felipe de Carvalho, advocacy adviser for MSF Access Campaign in Brazil, said that the original text had proposed to address this problem of inequity.

“What is being discussed in the WTO right now is no longer about how to save lives or how to address public health needs. It's about protecting commercial and political interests and creating new challenges for the distribution of medical tools,” he added.

On Tuesday, Piyush Goyal, India’s minister for commerce and industry expressed his disappointment at the way the negotiations on TRIPS waiver were shaping up at the WTO.

“I am sorry to share with you that in some bilaterals that I have had with the developed world and some of the countries who are opposing this in a way, they have almost clearly hinted and indicated that IP rights are extremely important, we are flowing with wind only because of the international pressure but on diagnostics and therapeutics there is no way we are going to yield,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the WTO ministerial which was scheduled to end on Wednesday has been extended by one more day. The multilateral trade body said that the decision was taken “in order to facilitate outcomes on the main issues under discussion”.