The Covid-19 vaccine IP waiver is back at the WTO, with a new deadline. Can it muster enough support?
World Trade Organization director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on members late last week to move swiftly and forge at least a draft agreement on the divisive IP waiver for Covid-19 vaccines by the end of February.
Those advocating for such a waiver, including countries like the US, India and South Africa and other aid groups like Doctors Without Borders, have called to help more countries manufacture their own vaccines more quickly, a task that has lost significant time due to these long negotiations. Some like MSF argue that the waiver shouldn’t just include vaccines but should provide a “critical legal pathway for countries to facilitate more diversified and sustainable production and supply” of all Covid-related tools, including tests and therapeutics too.
Even European leaders, who at first balked at the idea, seemed to have come around in recent months.
On the other side of the debate, the vaccine developers that developed the current suite of products (often with significant government support) argue that the IP waiver is not what’s constraining production. Pfizer and BioNTech say they expect to produce 4 billion doses of their vaccine in 2022, and the IFPMA has said that manufacturers in the US, EU, India and China will likely make more than 12 billion doses by mid-2022.
“We don’t want to create a situation where people compete for resources, where there are different versions of the product,” BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin told Endpoints News in an interview in November. “We really believe the way to deal with that is to ask the question of how — how this can be produced, and to be really patient. It took us 10 years to develop this; there are 50,000 steps, it’s not just the manufacturing, but the analytical assays, dozens of which need to be validated.”
Regardless, WTO’s Okonjo-Iweala is pushing ahead with her plan, despite an already-missed December deadline on the waiver.
“We should strive to get this result out by the end of February. It will be really sad if this organization keeps talking and debating on this pandemic, and that by the time we come up with a response people will not think it relevant. I think we should really move with all speed to try and conclude this by the end of February,” she said in a statement.
On Feb. 11, the WTO will hold a technical workshop to support these ongoing discussions around Covid-19 vaccine R&D, manufacturing and distribution, with representatives from AstraZeneca and Novavax speaking.
“I have heard that there could be some sort of deal by then. No details yet But I know that the EU, India, South Africa, and the United States have been meeting at the ministerial level on this,” Thiru Balasubramaniam, the Geneva representative of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International, told Endpoints.
Regarding these small-group discussions on the IP-related aspects of the pandemic response, Okonjo-Iweala asked for WTO members’ patience.
“This is a very difficult issue. If it were easy, it would have been resolved in the almost two years that this discussion has been going on (in the TRIPS Council). This small group process … is going on but it is very tough. I have to say there is no easy road,” she added.