So Close, Yet So Far: TRIPS Waiver at the WTO

Proposed Waiver Text in Ministers’ Hand, Key Differences Remain

Less than 24 hours before the 12th Ministerial Conference gets underway in Geneva – the capital of global health, and the seat of pandemic policy-making – WTO members continue to disagree on key aspects of the organization’s response to the pandemic, including an agreement on a potential waiver of a provision of the TRIPS Agreement.

The discussions on the TRIPS Waiver remain on tenterhooks, as ministers will now consider a bracketed text, the WTO reported last night. Key differences remain on how to adapt international trade rules meant to protect intellectual property rights in response to the on-going pandemic. (See more details below)

The world’s gaze turns to Geneva this week, as trade ministers gather after nearly five years for a ministerial conference of the WTO, it’s highest decision-making body. The conference will take place in the backdrop of a shift in geopolitics, war and health emergencies.  It is being seen as one of the most significant events for the WTO, not only because the organization’s legacy is at stake, but also as a barometer for international cooperation at a time when 15 million people globally are estimated to have died in the on-going pandemic.

And yet, 20 months on, from the date when India and South Africa, first brought a proposal to temporarily suspend IP protections in order to ostensibly, decisively, respond to the pandemic, members have not been able to reach agreement on the process to do so.   

For an organization that runs on consensus, compromise is key. But activists have warned that compromising on a much watered down TRIPS Waiver proposal would be detrimental and could even set bad precedent in terms of addressing countries’ access to medical products. 

While some countries remain boxed in their positions, activists continue to push governments to not only abandon their support to the current version of the text, but are also pushing them to adopt a “full” TRIPS Waiver.

Even as pressure grows on countries to conclude an agreement, barricades had risen up, earlier in the week, on the road approaching the WTO – the site of ministerial conference. Civil society organizations have now been barred entry on the first of the conference. “Please be informed that for unexpected security-related reasons, we are unfortunately unable to grant access to the WTO premises on Sunday 12 June”, said a communication from the WTO to CSOs, earlier this week. Protests from Civil Society Organizations are no stranger to WTO ministerials. It is likely that this event will witness protests especially against the weak text on the TRIPS waiver, among others issues.

Image Credit: Priti Patnaik, June 2022, Geneva

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