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WTO Decision to Introduce Widely Panned Leaked Text Is a Desperate Grasp for Relevance

WTO Members Must Keep Working for a True TRIPS Waiver

Updated: 12:05pm Eastern
Contact: Matt Groch, mgroch@citizen.org, (603) 560-0847

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council Chair Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone today reportedly told World Trade Organization (WTO) members that the much maligned March 15 leaked text would be tabled imminently so it can be discussed and perhaps agreed at the May 6 formal TRIPS Council meeting. Shortly after, it was introduced with official document number IP/C/W/688. In a departure from standard practice, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attended today’s informal TRIPS Council meeting in person, signaling her desire for quick action. In light of this news, Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, issued the following statement:

“The text just tabled is nearly identical to the one that leaked on March 15 – which civil society and academic experts around the world decried as ‘the lowest common denominator,’ an ‘abomination,’ and ‘worse than nothing.’ Criticism of this text has poured in from civil society in South Africa, India, the U.S., the EU, and around the world, as countries urge members to keep working for a true TRIPS waiver. The only changes are the additions of brackets around the country eligibility requirements and patent listing – indicating there is less agreement on those elements, though any of it can still be changed.  

“Once again, WTO officials are mischaracterizing the text as if it has been agreed by all four ‘quad’ members: India, South Africa, the U.S., and the EU. In fact, only the EU has signaled its support for the text, which is not surprising, as it supports their stance of using existing (insufficient) WTO rules in lieu of a meaningful waiver. India and South Africa have not agreed to the text, and Ambassador Katherine Tai has repeatedly pushed back on the notion of a quad compromise, insisting ‘that there has been no agreement.’

“It would be wholly inappropriate for the WTO to eke out a deal on this text to attempt to show the institution’s relevance rather than solve the real-world problems in global vaccine equity exacerbated by WTO rules.

“As this news comes just two days before the anniversary of President Joe Biden’s historic announcement of support for the waiver, public health advocates will gather tomorrow for a candlelight vigil for vaccine equity at the White House and in cities around the country. The vigil will include a projector and oversized screen which will play videos from Be A Hero’s, Ady Barkan, and other videos from health providers and public health experts from South Africa, India and Chile. They will call on President Biden to secure a true TRIPS waiver that covers COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and treatments and demand that Congress pass funding to vaccinate the world and save lives.”

For more background, the March 15 leaked text:

  • Would impose new barriers on countries attempting to remove intellectual property barriers and increase COVID medicines production. Instead of waiving barriers, it would impose new conditions limiting the existing WTO rules that now allow countries to issue compulsory licenses for patented products, for example a new obligation to identify all patents covered by a waiver application.
  • Does not cover COVID tests or treatments. The leaked text would cover only vaccines, at a stage in the pandemic when world leaders acknowledge that testing and treatments are critically important. Tests and treatments are to be considered six months later if this text is agreed to, but the WTO is notorious for missing deadlines.
  • Does not cover all of the intellectual property barriers to COVID medicine access. It reiterates existing rules on patents while adding new barriers. It does not even address the other categories of intellectual property covered in the original waiver proposal: trade secrets, undisclosed data, copyright, and industrial design. Many key COVID-19 vaccines and medicines are protected by thorny thickets of intertwined IP protection, not just a patent or two.
  • Excludes entire countries. It applies only to “developing countries” that “exported <10%” of the world’s vaccines in 2021 (which would exclude China and Brazil), as well as developed countries that might export to countries in need. It may also inadvertently exclude least developed countries.