US backing 'game-changer' for Covid vaccine patents waiver deal bid

Geneva, Switzerland: Washington's surprise backing for patent waivers on Covid-19 vaccines could push through a global deal on a long-stuck issue, but observers warned Thursday the scope might be narrower than some hope.

"This is a game-changer, there is no doubt about that," a Western trade diplomat close to ongoing patent waiver discussions at the World Trade Organization in Geneva told AFP.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai caught many by surprise Wednesday when she announced that Washington now supports the months-long push for a global waiver on patent protections for the Covid-19 jabs while the pandemic rages.

That marked a dramatic about-face in the position of the United States, which has long figured among the staunchest defenders of upholding intellectual property rights for the vaccines.

But since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden had been under intense pressure to back the move that proponents say could help poorer nations produce cheaper generic versions of the vaccines, amid growing outrage over the uneven distribution of jabs.

In a bid to help boost production and ensure that poorer nations can get their fair share, India and South Africa have since October been leading the efforts at the WTO towards a global agreement for the temporary removal of IP protections on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and other tools needed to battle the pandemic.

'Catalyst for change' 

But that notion has until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which have insisted the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warn the move could hamper innovation.

Observers said the shift by Washington dramatically increased the likelihood that countries could reach an agreement.

"This might be a catalyst for change," Gaetan de Rassenfosse, an intellectual property expert at Switzerland's EPFL technical university, told AFP.

"The US is the big player in the arena," he said, pointing out that other countries which have balked at the idea of an IP waiver "will be more and more isolated".

And indeed, within hours of the US announcement, the French, German, and EU leadership, among others, had already signaled they were ready to discuss the waiver proposal they had previously opposed.

"Now that Biden has moved... they don't really have a choice," Samira Guennif, an association economics professor at the Paris-Nord University, told AFP.

The Western diplomat in Geneva agreed that there was a lot of political pressure now for countries to fall in line, pointing out that no-one "wants to be left standing there on their own".

'Movement on both sides' 

Meanwhile, there has also been movement on the other side of the discussion, with India and South Africa recently informing the WTO they were revising their original proposal, with a new text expected next week, hinting that some compromise was possible.

That has put an end to a seemingly endless circular discussion at the global trade body, the Western diplomat said.

"There is sudden movement on both sides, so we are in a completely different situation for further discussions."

In light of the WTO's usual glacial pace in decision-making -- with agreements requiring consensus backing by all 164 member states -- a deal could still be a way off.

"This could take a while. It risks not coming fast enough to address the health emergency," Guennif warned.

Others, however, suggested that the massive political pressure around this issue could help speed up the process.

"If they want to make it happen quickly, they can," Rassenfosse said.

Ambition gap 

The Western diplomat stressed though that much remained to be negotiated and clarified, pointing out that Biden's proposal was far narrower than the original waiver push, which also urged that patent rights be waived on things like Covid-19 treatments, equipment, and clinical trial data.

"There is quite a big gap in the ambition level between the two," the diplomat said.

If India and South Africa are willing to scale back their ambitions and can accept an agreement on a patent waiver for vaccines only, a deal could probably be reached quickly.

"But if they stick to all their demands and say we want all or nothing, then this will take a lot longer," the diplomat said.

WTO chief 'warmly welcomes' US vaccine patent waiver proposal

The World Trade Organization chief hailed the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai's announcement that Washington supports a temporary global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines as the pandemic rages.

"I warmly welcome her willingness to engage with proponents of a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement to help in combating the Covid-19 pandemic," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement, read to reporters by her spokesman Keith Rockwell.

Tai issued a statement Wednesday signaling the shift in Washington's position towards an intellectual property waiver on the vaccines needed to battle the pandemic.

"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she said.

The global trade body has for months been facing calls led by India and South Africa to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, in a move proponents say would help boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.

But that notion had until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, including the United States, which had insisted patents were not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warned the move could hamper innovation.

The positions appeared to be shifting rapidly Thursday, with French, German, and EU leaders, among others, saying they were now ready to discuss a waiver proposal.

Okonjo-Iweala had stressed the urgency of the situation during a two-day meeting of the organization's general counsel that wrapped up Thursday, Rockwell said.

"We need to respond urgently to Covid-19 because the world is watching, and people are dying," she said in her statement.

The former Nigerian minister for finance and foreign affairs, who became the first woman and first African to take the helm of the WTO on March 1, had also hailed signs of compromise from the countries behind the original proposal.

India and South Africa have indicated they plan to "revise their proposal", with a new text expected next week with possible "compromises", Rockwell said Wednesday.

"I am pleased that the proponents are preparing a revision to their proposal, and I urge them to put this on the table, as soon as possible so that text-based negotiations can commence," Okonjo-Iweala said in her statement.

"It is only by sitting down together that we will find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all members, which enhances developing countries' access to vaccines, while protecting and sustaining the research and innovation so vital to the production of these life-saving vaccines."

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