Trade Won, Health Did Not. A Sliver of a Waiver at the WTO.

There was jubilation and cheer after the landmark ministerial conference at the WTO which saw a raft of agreements between its 164 members, that some say, has set a new benchmark for success, a kind not witnessed in decades. The outcome also included a weak text clarifying the use of existing rules in the WTO TRIPS Agreement. For the 100-odd countries that supported the original TRIPS waiver proposal, and countless supporters globally, conference was a moment of resignation. It was the culmination of 20 months of a fight that saw sustained resistance from many developed countries that refused to waive intellectual property protection rules to boost manufacturing of COVID-19 medical products.

The performance of multilateralism at the 12th ministerial conference in Geneva was for the survival of international and domestic elites and failed the world’s poorest, Hyo Yoon Kang, a scholar of intellectual property law tweeted, hours after the ministerial. For months, Kang and others, have highlighted the politics of the intellectual property legal regime and have shed light on the importance of waiving intellectual property provisions in the TRIPS Agreement to fight the pandemic.

But voices like Kang’s have been too distant at the WTO that has been all too keen to preserve prevailing IP regimes even in the face of the worst health emergency in 100 years.

This week the WTO adopted a weak text that essentially, only partially waived a single provision of the TRIPS agreement. In fact, so far is this text from the original TRIPS waiver proposal led by South Africa and India, that activists tried hard, and failed, in persuading WTO members to reject the text.

The dust will eventually settle down in Geneva, after 20 months of intense and divided debate on the TRIPS waiver. But observers say, a dent has been made. And the efforts to make intellectual property rules accountable to public health interests, will undoubtedly continue.

This story tries to capture the final hours of negotiations around the TRIPS waiver discussions at the ministerial conference. We also try to understand what this will mean for the future.  

Photo by Viktoria Goda: Pexels

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