Omicron Sounds Alarm on Fair Access to Vaccines, WTO Chief Says
(Bloomberg) -- World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said work on an intellectual-property waiver aimed at widening vaccine access in poor countries will continue despite the sudden postponement of a meeting of key stakeholders this week.
“The new variant should be a clarion call to all of us that we should now move speedily to agree this response to the pandemic,” she said in a virtual briefing with reporters Tuesday.
“We need to use all tools at our disposal to make sure we solve this problem of access to vaccines,” she said, stressing that lives and economic recoveries are at stake.
Over the past year WTO members have tried and failed to engage on a proposal from India and South Africa to waive key aspects of the organization’s IP rules for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
While the U.S., China and scores of other nations support the idea in principle, the European Union, the U.K. and Switzerland oppose an IP waiver that they say would do little to expand access to vaccines in the developing world.
Okonjo-Iweala said postponing this week’s WTO ministerial conference in Geneva, Switzerland, was a difficult decision, but holding the talks would’ve been unfair to countries targeted by the travel bans.
The WTO should resume its “meeting as soon as it is possible health-wise and travel-wise,” she said.
The WTO’s leadership has proposed moving its 12th ministerial conference -- known as MC12 -- to the first week of March, but that decision has not yet been confirmed by the membership.
The meeting, which is a gathering of the organization’s highest decision-making body, represents a critical moment for the organization to show that it remains relevant to the needs of regular people.
Okonjo-Iweala has urged nations to begin the process of reforming the WTO rulebook by concluding three trust-building agreements:
- an agreement to curb harmful fishery subsidies,
- a framework to expand global trade in vaccines,
- and a pledge to reduce trade-distorting agricultural policies.
Okonjo-Iweala said members had seen some positive progress in the fisheries negotiations prior to the meeting’s postponement and work will continue in a virtual format.
“Momentum on fishery subsidies was looking pretty good,” she said.
For the past 20 years the WTO has sought and failed to reach an agreement to eliminate as much as $54 billion worth of annual government subsides that threaten the sustainability of the world’s fishing grounds.
If members are finally able to conclude a deal, it would help prevent the exploitation of the marine ecosystem and stave off economic ruin for coastal communities which depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
The talks are also viewed as a litmus test for the relevance of the WTO itself, which hasn’t reached a multilateral accord since 2015 and lost its ability to fully resolve trade disputes in 2019.
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