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Law360 (December 10, 2020, 7:10 PM EST) -- The World Trade Organization has yet to make a decision on a proposal that would suspend the trade body's intellectual property protections related to the coronavirus, according to a Geneva trade official Thursday.
Member states of the WTO's Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights discussed at a Thursday meeting a proposal from India, South Africa and others that seeks to suspend the trade body's intellectual property protections related to the coronavirus as part of the global response to the pandemic, but the member states weren't able to reach a consensus yet, according to the official. However, members agreed to talk about the proposal in the future, the official said, adding that the council is expected to meet again in early 2021.
According to the trade official, the U.S. brought up concerns and said the pandemic might cause an uptick in counterfeit health products and that importance should be placed on access and how to solve the issue.
The Indian WTO delegation said in a Thursday statement that the world needs to come together to boost vaccine manufacturing, and that waiving provisions of the TRIPS Agreement, a global treaty governing international property rights, would allow for global cooperation to respond to the pandemic.
The proposal would waive for WTO members certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for treating, containing and preventing COVID-19, but only until widespread vaccination and immunity are achieved.
Since the novel coronavirus was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, there has been a global push for wider access to intellectual property related to vaccine development. India and South Africa led the charge in that movement, asking the WTO on Oct. 2 to give countries the opportunity to not grant or enforce patents for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.
The WTO failed to reach an agreement during a meeting in October, with some countries, including the U.K., saying there is no indication that intellectual property rights have hindered the availability of vaccines and therapeutics during the pandemic.
And during a meeting last month, WTO members revealed deep divisions over the proposal, with its co-sponsors, which include Kenya, Eswatini and others, saying it is needed to mitigate barriers to affordable COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Wealthy countries, such as the European Union and the United States, opposed the proposal at the time, saying solutions to the pandemic can be sought through the existing intellectual property system.
Thursday's WTO meeting came the same day a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee voted to approve an emergency use authorization request from Pfizer and BioNTech for their COVID-19 vaccine, potentially clearing the way for some groups to start getting vaccinated within days. A few other countries have already granted emergency approval to Pfizer and BioNTech, with Canada moving Wednesday to greenlight the treatment after the U.K. granted approval last week. Bahrain has also granted approval, according to the companies.
By Thursday afternoon, more than 905,000 people had signed a petition — organized by activist group Avaaz — calling for universal access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines. That petition also called for coronavirus-related patent protections to be done away with.
Others have called for the suspension of IP rights related to the virus.
In a Dec. 7 opinion piece for the New York Times, activist Achal Prabhala and economists Arjun Jayadev and Dean Baker criticized the U.S. and other countries for not backing the WTO waiver proposal.
But in a separate Thursday opinion piece in the New York Times, Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said taking away those patent protections would be risky and also wouldn't help people get their hands on the vaccine.
--Additional reporting by Britain Eakin and Kevin Stawicki. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.
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