WTO chief: Patent waiver not enough to close vaccine gap

FILE PHOTO: Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during a press conference remotely on the annual global WTO trade forecast at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland March 31, 2021. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said that intellectual property waiver alone will not be enough to narrow the huge COVID-19 vaccine supply gap between rich and poor countries.

She told the European Parliament that it was clear that discussions around vaccine patents alone would not suffice, saying that global leaders should do more to ensure that there is equitable production and distribution of the jabs.

Okonjo-Iweala said developing countries had complained that the licensing process was cumbersome and should be improved upon.

She added that while it makes sense to protect research and innovation, it is also important to expand access to the vaccines.

According to her, manufacturers should work to expand production, pointing to idle capacity in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, and South Africa among other developing nations.

She said: “I am convinced that we can agree on a text that gives developing countries that kind of access and flexibility, whilst protecting research and innovation.

“To have solved the unacceptable problem of inequity of access to vaccines, we have to be holistic. It’s not one or the other.”

Okonjo-Iweala stressed the importance of diversifying vaccine manufacturing and to have more production taking place in Africa and Latin America to contain the pandemic.

She told the EU legislators that normal market forces for exports and imports couldn’t apply when it comes to the life-or-death issue of COVID-19 vaccines, as many of the world’s wealthiest nations are hoarding the shots for their own population when the crisis hits their home turf.

She said although the world could manufacture some five billion vaccine doses overall, it now requires twice or three times that capacity due to the spread of the contagion.

“One of the main challenges is diversifying vaccine production, which is now 80 per cent concentrated in 10 European, North American and South Asian nations, Okonjo-Iweala said, calling the situation a problem that “has come home to roost.”

She added: “It’s not normal that Africa, with 1.3 billion people, has 0.17 per cent of the manufacturing capacity of the world. So this has to change.”

EU nations have criticised a call by the United States to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents as a way to increase supplies, saying that the move would yield no short-term or intermediate improvement and could even have a negative impact.

However, Okonjo-Iweala sought to remain neutral on the issue, saying that WTO members could find the flexibility to make sure more vaccines are produced in developing nations.

South Africa and India have urged fellow WTO members to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines to boost production.

Poorer countries that make up half the world’s population have received just 17 per cent of doses, a situation the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled “vaccine apartheid”.

The EU outlined a plan on Wednesday it sees as a more effective way of boosting output, using existing WTO rules, rather than a waiver, noting that countries can grant licences to manufacturers to produce with or without the patent holder’s consent.

In March, Nigeria received nearly four million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), from Mumbai through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to the vaccines.

The doses have now been largely exhausted even as India, a major contributor to the COVAX facility, battles to curb the growing number of infections and deaths in the Asian country.

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