WTO member states have failed to overcome their divisions over intellectual property exceptions for coronavirus drugs and tests. On Tuesday, in Geneva, they decided to extend the discussion beyond the planned six months.
During the June ministerial meeting, the 164 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) broke a consensus for such exceptions for vaccines for five years. Switzerland, upset because it feared effects on the innovation possibilities of pharmaceutical companies, caved in with other countries. Mainly because the production of doses became enough to supply the demand.
In the deal, the ministers agreed to pursue the same goal on other coronavirus technologies within six months, including drugs and tests. After this deadline, last Saturday, they reached a minimum agreement, that of extending the discussions, during the meeting of the General Council, the organization’s highest body.
But uncertainty remains as to the duration of these extended negotiations, which should be settled next March. Some developing States would like a new three-month period to be introduced. An unacceptable approach for the United States.
This decision is not a surprise. After months of divisions, the chairman of the negotiations had to resolve to make a one-paragraph report to the General Council, as the blockages remain important. Some developing countries, the same ones that want a short deadline, proposed applying the same vaccine decision, but a group of countries, including Switzerland, refused.
No scarcity, according to Bern
A few weeks ago, the United States announced that it would support an extension of the discussions in Geneva. In recent months, Switzerland has not vigorously opposed it, but has pointed out that too many questions remain unanswered to move forward.
She is not alone in that line. Many states are asking for more information on an issue more difficult to resolve than vaccines. The United States decided to launch an investigation to find out more.
On the other hand, the countries that made this exception request still retort that access to other technologies against the coronavirus remains uneven. For Switzerland, it must first be demonstrated that a systemic problem caused by intellectual property is observed. Then measures could be put in place to improve the situation and ensure an unimpeded supply.
However, there is no indication of a shortage, Switzerland said recently, based on data from a British firm contracted by the international umbrella organization for pharmaceutical companies (IFPMA). On the contrary, there would rather be a demand problem. Switzerland calls for a broader response, in terms of funding and technology transfer.
More than 130 recent agreements
He notes that more than 130 voluntary licensing agreements, spanning nearly 130 countries, have been agreed with innovators. “No tweaks to the intellectual property system appear necessary,” she added in a recent statement.
In addition to the WTO dialogue, some would like to see the possibility of intellectual property exceptions being part of a future binding pandemic agreement at the World Health Organization (WHO). This, discussed in a preliminary way so far, should be the subject of negotiations from the end of next February.
Recently, during the third preparatory meeting, the United States made it clear that this issue should be resolved in the WTO. An approach that could prevent Switzerland from being exposed to multiple fronts in an attempt to preserve the pharmaceutical industry.
At the WTO, some developing countries also wanted the WHO to be more associated, giving indications on drug stocks and tests. Once again, wealthy states refused this request.