No progress was made in discussions on whether to extend the COVID-19 vaccine waiver to include diagnostics and therapeutics at the latest meeting of trade officials.
Following the US International Trade Commission (USITC) report on COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Council on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) met on Monday and Tuesday (30-31 October) to discuss whether to extend the WTO TRIPS waiver on COVID-19 vaccines to include diagnostics and therapeutics.
However, according to a Geneva-based trade official, no progress was made during the meeting.
The initial December 2022 deadline for a decision on an extension was set in the WTO ministerial decision of 17 June 2022 (MC12 decision), which saw WTO members agree on a TRIPS waiver only for COVID-19 vaccines. This waiver was originally proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 to break down barriers to global access to COVID-19 products.
After lengthy and unfruitful discussions last autumn, the TRIPS waiver deadline was postponed indefinitely in December last year. The US later initiated work on the USITC report, which was published on 17 October, to inform discussions but this has so far not brought the council members closer to an agreement.
According to the Geneva-based trade official, the EU’s input at the TRIPS Council meeting was that the situation around global access to COVID-19 products is complex and has to consider many different perspectives as well as encouraging work to continue.
This echoes what a European Commission spokesperson told Euractiv last week and therefore does not add anything new to the table. There were also reportedly no new suggestions from the US at the meeting.
Despite calls for different perspectives from some countries, Brazil argued that there was enough information to make a decision, while South Africa – supported by the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP), the group of least developed countries (LDC), Indonesia, India, Egypt and Cambodia – urged for an extension to be decided upon when the WTO General Council meets in December.
Wealth of information
Both the US report and September’s thematic session have added to the wealth of data designed to inform negotiations on global access to COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.
One of the most sensitive topics is voluntary and compulsory licensing.
Compulsory licensing (CL) is when a government allows an entity separate from the patent owner to produce an IP-protected product without the approval of the owner. This practice has been discouraged by research-based pharmaceutical companies because they argue it would harm research and development. Instead, they argue for voluntary licensing.
The US report supports the civil society argument that CL can improve access and boost local production in some cases. However, it emphasises that these licences only cover patents and do not include know-how such as trade secrets, technical specifications and training, instructions, process controls, test data, and quality control procedures.
On the other hand, the report states that there is not enough research to conclude that CLs harm innovation.
The chair of the TRIPS Council, Pimchanok Pitfield, has urged the countries to decide on the extension before the WTO ministerial conference (MC13) in February 2024.
[Edited by Giedrė Peseckytė/Nathalie Weatherald]
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