Global Orgs. Unite For COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Push

By Alex Lawson
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Law360 (June 1, 2021, 6:41 PM EDT) -- The leaders of global organizations for trade, health and development joined forces to back a $50 billion International Monetary Fund proposal to increase global access to COVID-19 vaccines Tuesday.

Among the officials endorsing the proposal was World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has overseen a feverish debate over whether to waive certain intellectual property protections for the vaccines. The director-general alluded to those discussions during a Tuesday press conference.

"While I cannot take sides, we need to get to a conclusion of this debate," the director-general said.

Broadening beyond the IP waiver debate, Okonjo-Iweala said that countries also "need to promote ... the transfer of technology and know-how to get lasting increases in production capacity."

The joint proposal advanced by the IMF, WTO, World Bank and World Health Organization calls for an injection of $50 billion into global vaccine response, including increased financing for developing countries to secure and administrate vaccines. The proposal further calls for additional funding for surplus vaccine doses to account for variants and mutations in the virus.

In their statement, the organizations also called on WTO members to "accelerate negotiations towards a pragmatic solution around intellectual property," referring to the IP waiver.

That waiver, proposed by South Africa and India, would lift restrictions on copyrights, patents and trade secret protections shielding the vaccines and their development. The aim of the proposal is to allow developing countries to manufacture generic versions of the vaccination without fear of reprisal from pharmaceutical giants.

South Africa and India introduced the proposal in October, leading to a months-long stalemate until the Biden administration began to budge.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai agreed to an IP waiver last month, setting the stage for closely watched negotiations at the WTO. The Geneva-based trade organization operates by consensus, meaning that it takes all delegations to agree to any new endeavor.

Those negotiations have gotten off to an uneven start. At a Monday WTO meeting of the Council of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, several delegations lined up against a revised IP waiver proposal from India and South Africa.

Power players like the European Union and South Korea have remained skeptical. Monday's meeting saw those delegations, along with several others, question the effectiveness of an IP waiver.

Proponents have also conceded that the IP waiver would not be a silver bullet to end the pandemic, but would serve as a necessary first step to improve the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

At Monday's meeting, South Korea noted that the waiver "seems a bit too far in the scope," according to a Geneva trade official. Many richer countries have feared that the waiver could extend beyond COVID-19 vaccines and strip other products of their exclusive IP rights.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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