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Law360 (March 2, 2021, 7:29 PM EST) -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday warned the World Trade Organization's new director-general not to "distract" herself with proposals to suspend global intellectual property rules in order to distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
Patrick Kilbride, senior vice president of the Global Innovation Policy Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the WTO to recognize how important "transparent and predictable intellectual property rights" have been in spurring collaborative efforts to develop vaccines.
Kilbride's comments came just a day after the trade body's new director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, issued her first address to the WTO's General Council.
"Proposals to waive intellectual property rights are misguided and a distraction from the real work of reinforcing supply chains," Kilbride said in Tuesday's statement. Okonjo-Iweala had been Nigeria's first female finance minister, and she was elected as the trade body's first female director-general last October.
Her speech, however, had touched on a relatively long-simmering proposal to waive certain provisions of the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPs. Those efforts have been met with resistance by the U.S., EU and other nations with powerful pharmaceutical industries, who say the agreement is what gives companies the incentive to innovate.
"The dialogue is intensifying," Okonjo-Iweala said Monday about that proposal, which largely stalled in December. She had proposed an "interim solution" involving increasing vaccine shipments to "poor countries" from the global coronavirus vaccine collective COVAX. Before being elected to the top WTO spot, Okonjo-Iweala had been chair of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The Chamber said Tuesday this was the kind of vaccine action that it could support from the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala's speech had largely bemoaned that "the world is leaving the WTO behind" and, before taking office, she had publicly urged the trade body to get behind putting together a "third way" wedged in between prioritizing vaccine access and continuing investment in research and development.
As an example, she cited a deal reached last year between the Serum Institute of India and AstraZeneca to supply 1 billion doses for low- and-middle-income countries.
"The 'third way' proposed by incoming WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to encourage licensing agreements is worthy of further discussion," Kilbride said.
The chamber's main opponents in the WTO are India and South Africa, the two countries that have led the charge to get the trade body to waive those intellectual property provisions.
But a number of Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with advocacy groups led by Médecins Sans Frontières, have also been ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to back the waiver as well.
The U.S.'s position on the waiver had been set by former President Donald Trump, but in recent WTO committee meetings, President Joe Biden has not reversed his predecessor's position.
Last Friday, 400 advocacy groups, led by MSF, sent a letter to President Biden urging him to change course, a position also endorsed by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee.
"It is rare that one policy change can so significantly impact a global health effort that could save millions of lives. Supporting this waiver is the right thing to do in and of itself," the letter said.
--Additional reporting by Alex Lawson, Sarah Martinson and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Philip Shea.
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