WTO accepts partial patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

The World Trade Organization reached agreements on a partial patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and reached agreements in several other areas of global contention, after a tense six-day ministerial meeting that renewed some confidence in the struggling multilateral trading system.

Trade ministers temporarily extended duty-free trade in digital goods such as films, computer software and data, and agreed to cut some fisheries subsidies and limit food export restrictions .

The WTO’s 164 members also agreed to update the organization’s working practices and try to reinvigorate its dispute settlement system, which has been crippled for years by non-cooperation by states. United.

Piyush Goyal, India’s trade minister, whom many countries have privately accused of holding the talks hostage with demands for exceptions, told reporters it was ‘one of the most successful ministerial meetings that the world has known for a long time”. The decisions taken were “a signal that the multilateral order is not broken”, he said.

Valdis Dombrovskis, European Commissioner for Trade, said the WTO was on a “positive path”, adding: “The WTO can provide an answer to the acute problems and challenges we face and is ready to reform itself to bring its regulation in the 21st century.”

But the Geneva meeting postponed several contentious decisions for the next gathering in December 2023.

The meeting was due to end on Wednesday but continued on Friday morning after two night sessions. Talks to cut farm subsidies have been shelved, but countries have agreed to ban restrictions on the sale of their food to the World Food Program as the organization grapples with food shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The waiver to the WTO’s Trips agreement which governs intellectual property clashed until Thursday with the UK, which said it would harm pharmaceutical research. But the deal will allow governments to compel companies to share their vaccine revenue for the next five years.

The deal fell short of a request from India and South Africa to exempt all Covid-related vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, although there will be a review in six months. Instead, governments can issue compulsory licenses to domestic manufacturers but must compensate patent holders.

Activists were disappointed with the result. “It’s hard to imagine anything with less benefit than this, in response to a massive global health emergency,” said James Love, director of the nongovernmental organization Knowledge Ecology International.

India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia had resisted extending the digital customs moratorium, saying it deprived developing countries of billions of dollars in revenue. But small businesses in many poor countries said they relied on foreign software products to stay competitive, according to trade officials.

The extension of the moratorium until the next ministerial meeting followed intense lobbying by business groups.

“Businesses and consumers everywhere are already facing a crisis of food insecurity and an energy crisis. Thanks to this WTO result, we narrowly avoided a data crisis,” said Jane Drake-Brockman of the Australian Services Roundtable.

But overall business reaction has been muted.

“It is clear that there is a huge need for a vibrant WTO capable of tackling shared global priorities, but this ministerial meeting has laid bare the increasingly severe limits to meaningful outcomes that require unanimous agreement “said Jake Colvin, president of the Washington-based organization. National Foreign Trade Council.

The restriction on fisheries subsidies is the first time the WTO has regulated trade solely on sustainability grounds after talks dragged on for 21 years. Countries will need to limit subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; overfishing; and financial assistance to vessels fishing in unregulated international waters.

Fisheries subsidies total about $35 billion worldwide, of which $22 billion contributes directly to overfishing, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The UN says the number of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels has risen from 10% in 1974 to 34.2% in 2017.

The agreements were a triumph for WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference in the lives of people around the world,” she told delegates at the closing ceremony. “The results show that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to the urgencies of our time.”

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