South Africa locks horns with rich nations over bid to waive COVID vaccine patents

World Trade Organisation head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
World Trade Organisation head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Image: REUTERS/Emma Farge/File Photo

GENEVA - A push to increase production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations hung in the balance at the World Trade Organization on Wednesday amid disagreement between richer and developing countries over the issue of patent rights.

South Africa and India planned to renew their bid at a two-day meeting to waive rules of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, a move that would allow generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines.

Their proposal is backed by dozens of largely developing countries at the WTO, but opposed by Western countries including Britain, Switzerland, EU nations and the United States, which have large domestic pharmaceutical industries.

Proposals need backing by a consensus of the WTO's 164 members to pass.

The issue was set to come up at the WTO's TRIPS Council on Wednesday afternoon. Members would then hold an eighth discussion on the topic since it was first raised in October.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who became WTO director-general on March 1, called the intensifying TRIPS discussions "vitally important", but said governments and businesses needed to act now to increase production, especially in emerging markets.

She said in a speech on Tuesday that manufacturers should come together with bodies such as the World Health Organization and vaccines alliance GAVI, whose board she used to chair, and business associations to look into options.

"We must make sure that in the end we deliver so that the millions of people who are waiting for us with bated breath know that we are working on concrete solutions," the former Nigerian finance and foreign minister said.

The next TRIPS Council meeting is set for June 8-9, but the group will probably be convened again to discuss vaccines before then.

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