The Emerging Path to the TRIPS Waiver

With just a fortnight left for the 12th WTO ministerial conference, WTO members continue to diverge on the TRIPS Waiver proposal that many believe will bolster the response to COVID-19. But countries hope that they will be able to find convergence on a potential waiver to ensure a strong outcome on WTO’s response to the pandemic on intellectual property issues.

Members are exploring ways in which vaccine manufacturers who are ready to produce, should be able to begin production of COVID-19 vaccines without worrying about patents. But it is unclear which route this could take – whether under existing TRIPS flexibilities or a waiver.

For the European Union, the way ahead is tightly signposted by the use of existing TRIPS flexibilities such compulsory licensing. On the other hand, proponents of the waiver, led by South Africa continue to push for a waiver of obligations under a slew of intellectual property protections that go beyond compulsory licensing.  

Time is running out. There could be potential political consequences for not only for WTO, but also its members. The growing expectations for deliverables for the ministerial, is putting pressure on the opponents to the waiver to work out a solution, diplomatic sources suggest. For the most part, after more than 12 months of pushing for a waiver, the proponents now seem to have more latitude to preserve the objectives in their proposal. Whether they will be able to retain key elements in their proposal is yet to be seen.

“The pressure is on others to row the boat, we are only steering the direction of the boat,” a diplomat from a developing country told us.

This story tries to capture the state of play in these discussions based on multiple interviews with Geneva-based trade officials and diplomats.

Photo by Tropojan Eagle from Pexels

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