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More Effort Needed for Meaningful Outcome at WTO on Covid-19

Comprehensive Waiver for Vaccines, Tests, and Treatments at Risk

Protesters hold signs reading "Delay = Death" and "Support WTO Trips Waiver" during a demonstration ahead of the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel near the White House in Washington, DC, on July 15, 2021. © 2021 Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(New York) – A newly leaked text reveals that negotiations between the European Union, United States, South Africa, and India at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on an intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 related products require more work to achieve a meaningful outcome, Human Rights Watch said today.

The leaked text significantly narrows the scope and potential impact of the proposal first introduced by India and South Africa in October 2020. It excludes Covid-19 tests and treatments, cuts out certain countries from potential pathways to expand access to health products, and does not address barriers posed by trade secrets.

“The leaked text shows that more efforts are needed to ensure that negotiations at the WTO actually end up expanding access to lifesaving medicines, testing kits, and vaccines,” said Margaret Wurth, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The pandemic is not yet over, and gross inequities in access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments prove a comprehensive waiver is as important as ever.”

At least six million lives have already been lost. Other estimates peg it triple or even quadruple that number. The leak comes at a time when surges of Covid-19 cases are hitting South Korea, Hong Kong, Western Europe, and New Zealand.

While the original proposal from India and South Africa was for a global waiver, the new leaked text suggests that only “developing countries” that exported less than 10 percent of global vaccine supplies as of 2021 will be able to benefit from the waiver and potentially manufacture more. Under these provisions, China, which exported over a third of global Covid-19 vaccine supply in 2021, would be left out. Countries like Brazil and South Korea, which have declared that they are no longer “developing countries,” may also be excluded.

Until recently, the European Commission, representing the EU at WTO negotiations, had consistently opposed the idea of a waiver and blocked it from moving forward. Efforts to end the stalemate are helpful, but should not come at the expense of a meaningful waiver to save lives and protect rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The text being circulated would cover only vaccines initially, and gives members six months to decide whether to extend the agreement to Covid-19 tests and treatments, reflecting the US government’s stated preference to “begin” with vaccines. Last May, the US government announced support for an intellectual property waiver, but only for Covid-19 vaccines – and not tests or treatments. Widespread testing is critical to monitor new outbreaks and variants, and the world cannot wait another six months for greater access to lifesaving treatments. Experts have noted growing global inequities in access to anti-viral pills.

The text being circulated does not waive rules around trade secrets, essential for hastening the pathway for vaccine production, Human Rights Watch said. India and South Africa, the sponsors of the original October 2020 proposal, specifically understood the need for waiving trade secrets, which are critical to help new manufacturers produce more vaccines if vaccine developers do not cooperate through technology transfers.

It also fails to simplify the process of compulsory licensing to produce a patented product or process, and even introduces new hurdles and procedures. For instance, the text requires governments issuing compulsory licenses for Covid-19 products to list all patents and send information to patent holders, making it more cumbersome and slowing down a process that requires simplicity and urgency to save the maximum number of lives.

The European Parliament has repeatedly expressed support for a more comprehensive waiver, and it should now use its voice to demand that the Commission expand the scope of the common ground they have found so far, Human Rights Watch said. All 62 countries that cosponsored India and South Africa’s proposal, most of whom were not part of the backroom negotiations to develop this leaked text, can also engage to strengthen the text.

“The good news is that a better deal is possible, and the details are not yet finalized,” Wurth said. “European governments should push the Commission, which has been negotiating on their behalf, to secure an outcome that helps achieve equitable and global access to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.”

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