What global trade has to do with COVID-19
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A global dispute over access to COVID-19 vaccines suggests a new role for the World Trade Organization, although purists will bridle at that possibility, according to the Financial Times. 

“People are dying in poor countries,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on her first day in office on March 1, Reuters reports. “The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses.”

India and South Africa proposed waiving the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement rules on intellectual property (IP) that govern the production and export of vaccines and other medical supplies needed to combat COVID-19, Bloomberg explains. Backers of the exemption, humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières among them, say it’s unscrupulous for wealthy economies to hoard the vaccine and drug companies to put profit before lives in poor countries, the newswire adds. 

More than fifty developing countries have backed the proposal by India and South Africa, the Financial Times explains in its Trade Secrets briefing. But the United States, the European Union, and other wealthy economies oppose it, Reuters reports. It’s predictable that advanced economies where pharmaceutical companies are based have pushed back hard, the Financial Times adds. 

“Many companies are willing to license their IP at low or even no cost but want contractual agreements to ensure it is developed safely and not pilfered,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued in November 2020. “But India and South Africa want to obtain this technology without paying for it and then use their generic-drug manufacturing base to produce, distribute and sell copycats worldwide.”

Okonjo-Iweala’s unusual background, as the Financial Times puts it, might help to take the Geneva-based trade body in a different direction. During the campaign that culminated in her becoming the first African and female director-general (and also the first without a strong background in trade), Okonjo-Iweala highlighted her role as the chair of the international vaccine alliance Gavi.

A third way may be possible, the Financial Times says. Even if the WTO turns out not to be a main forum for discussions about issues including vaccine distribution, research, and finance, it can at least be a catalyst—especially since there’s a shortage of credible institutions to facilitate that debate. It’s a dialogue, the newspaper says, that may lead to some constructive action. 

But for that to happen, the WTO and its members need to be more transparent, the Financial Times says, as ambassadors hold discussions behind closed doors. “Open it up, let’s see who’s saying what,” the Trade Secrets article says. “You can’t host a conversation if you don’t let anyone outside listen.”


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