In a major breakthrough, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) members on Wednesday agreed to begin text-based negotiations for patent waiver on coronavirus related vaccines and treatments as members of the European Union did not object to the proposal originally put forward by India and South Africa. However, dissenting countries could still put spanners and limit the scope of a final deal.

“Today TRIPS Council agreed with consensus to go ahead with text based negotiations on our TRIPS waiver proposal. All naysayers removed their blockade,” a commerce ministry official said under condition of anonymity.

After conclusion of the two day long formal TRIPS Council meeting on Wednesday, the current chair Dagfinn Sørli said he will start the consultation process and called for open ended TRIPS Council plenary meeting on 17 June.

“In line with our suggestion that the deadline to conclude negotiations is the end of July, the chair highlighted the need for intensive consultations to reach conclusion by 21 July when the General Council is scheduled to meet next. In the meanwhile, we will engage with all members on line-by-line text negotiations,” the official added.

The co-sponsors of a patent waiver to boost supplies of life-saving drugs and vaccines for covid-19, pioneered by India and South Africa presented a revised proposal on 21 May seeking that the temporary waiver be in place for at least three years, given the uncertainty regarding vaccine effectiveness for children and against new variants. However, the European Union came out with its own proposal highlighting existing WTO rules such as compulsory licensing that allows countries to grant licences to manufacturers without the consent of the patent-holder.

Harsha Vardhana Singh, former deputy Director-General at the World Trade Organization said with countries agreeing for text-based negotiations, hopefully there will be some result though one has to wait for the content of it. “TRIPS waiver is a necessary condition. It creates the foundation for countries to work further to address other regulatory conditions to ramp up vaccine production,” he added.

Dissenting economies have questioned the effectiveness of TRIPS waiver for fast-tracking access to covid vaccines across the world. In a meeting on 23 February they asked co-sponsors such as India and South Africa if spare manufacturing capacity is available to produce vaccines even if a waiver is granted. EU said while it agrees that the ramping up of manufacturing capacity is a clear priority now and any available manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world should be used to the full extent, “any indication of where underused capacity exists as indicated by some members would be very welcome”.

India last week said the co-sponsors of the proposal recognise that intellectual properties (IPs) are not the only barrier to augmenting manufacturing and addressing supply side constraints. “However, we do believe that IPs are the biggest barrier in addressing supply side constraints, and thus need to be addressed on priority. The waiver is not sufficient but rather necessary element of a multipronged strategy. The TRIPS waiver is a necessary, proportionate and temporary legal measure for removing IP barriers and paving the way for more companies to produce COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics or diagnostics by providing them freedom to operate without the fear of infringement of IP rights or the threat of litigation,” it added.

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