The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has recommended actions for countries and drug makers to increase production of COVID-19 vaccines and share them more widely and fairly.
Okonjo-Iweala spoke during a closed-door meeting of producers, governments and others over inequitable access, with low-income countries administering just 0.2 per cent of 700 million global doses.
She said concerns over cross-border supply chains, including export curbs and shortages of skilled personnel, had reinforced her view that the WTO must play a central role in the response to the pandemic.
“In the coming weeks and months, we expect concrete follow-up action. These issues are not easy, but the political will and engagement from the private sector displayed today, suggests it is possible,” she said.
Speaking on the topic: “COVID-19 and Vaccine Equity: What Can the WTO Contribute?” she stated that members should reduce export restrictions and work to ease logistics and customs procedures.
She urged them to advance negotiations on a proposal by India and South Africa and backed by over 80 WTO members, to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights of pharmaceutical companies.
The director-general said statements from government ministers, vaccine manufacturers, civil society advocates and leaders of international organisations had identified problems and pointed to potential solutions.
“This is a problem of the global commons, and we have to solve it together,” she added.
She expressed hope that the meeting, which included about 50 speakers, would serve as the basis for continued dialogue aimed at delivering results in terms of increased vaccine production volumes in the short-term as well as longer-term investments in vaccine production.
Okonjo-Iweala stated that the large number of trade-related concerns expressed during the meeting, from the importance of open cross-border trade for access to vaccine raw materials and inputs to differences over the role of intellectual property protections, indicated that the WTO must play a central part in the response to this crisis.
She highlighted the importance of increased contract transparency, emphasising that international organisations and financial institutions, in addition to providing financial support for existing and new capacity, could provide capacity support on regulatory issues for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
“I hope that part of what we get from today is not only concrete action to increase capacity, but also the elements of a framework on trade and health that we can pull together at the WTO, and put before ministers at the 12th Ministerial Conference in December,” she said.
While WTO members have discussed the issue eight times, without a breakthrough, Western nations said protecting IP rights would encourage research and that suspending those rights would not yield a sudden surge of vaccine supply.
Okonjo-Iweala said she hoped a common goal would bring parties to the middle and find a solution acceptable to all.
She urged vaccine makers to increase technology transfer to bring in new manufacturing capacity and to be transparent on contracts and pricing.
Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are among those producing the shots for now.
U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, told attendees the gaping divide between developed and developing countries access to medicines, seen previously during the AIDS crisis, was “completely unacceptable” and could not be repeated.
“As governments and leaders of international institutions, the highest standards of courage and sacrifice are demanded of us in times of crisis. The same needs to be demanded of industry,” she said, adding that the “market has once again failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries.”
Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja