The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was conducted at the WTO headquarters in Geneva between June 12 to June 17, 2022. This conference was attended by the ministers of the member countries from across the globe to evaluate the working of the body, make general announcements, and take steps towards the future course of work of the WTO.
Pursuant to an intense and non-stop debate and deliberation, the member nations agreed on a partial waiver of intellectual property rights for the production of Covid-19 vaccines for the next five years, among other decisions. Thus, the governments can now issue compulsory licenses to domestic manufacturers but must also adequately indemnify the patent holders.
In this regard, it is pertinent to mention that India and South Africa, since 2020, have been vocal in advocating the need to temporarily lift the intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines to meet with the unprecedented crisis and narrow the widening vaccination disparity between the rich and the poor countries.
The WTO agreement, however, failed to meet their request of the exemption also being applicable on all Covid-related treatments and diagnostics, though there will be a review in six months. This essentially means that the pricing and accessibility of therapeutic drugs and testing kits will continue to remain a hitch, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The WTO decision has been, therefore, described as half-hearted by many. At the same time, it is contended by some that the above-stated move of WTO regarding partial patent waiver could ensure the safety and availability of vaccines to all, including accessibility to booster shots.
According to the World Health Organization, while 60 percent of the world’s population has received two vaccine doses, the number falls to 17 percent in Libya, 8 percent in Nigeria, and less than 5 percent in Cameroon. This indicates that many of the underdeveloped and developing countries still fall far behind the rest of the world in vaccination rates.
India’s Commerce and Industries Minister, Piyush Goyal said that the stated decision of WTO will boost vaccine equity and affordability for domestic requirements and exports.
On the other hand, some argue that while the said move is heartening and motivating, the demand for Covid-19 vaccines is slowly dwindling. A spokesperson from the Serum Institute of India (SII) said, “Today, the demand for vaccines is declining. The patent waivers for Covid vaccines are an encouraging and progressive step towards safeguarding the accessibility and mass production of essential drugs and medicines, in the face of future pandemics.”
The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières issued a statement in Geneva calling the proposed WTO agreement “inadequate” for not including all countries and also not covering all Covid-19 medical tools within its ambit. Christos Christou, the organization’s international president said, “Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives”.
It is also pointed out that it needs to be seen as to what exactly a ‘partial’ patent waiver entails. Furthermore, the manufacturers will still need the patentee’s know-how to develop a marketable product, which will also require regulatory approvals. It is thus argued that the waiver would not have an immediate impact.
To conclude, although the current decision of the WTO is dismissed by many as too little, too late, there is no denying that the step is encouraging, as knowledge sharing is crucial and critical in the fight against global pandemics.