If international organizations are subject to karma, last week’s abrupt postponement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, the body’s first major decision-making gathering in four years, was fated to be. News of the emergence of Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant, not only caused the meeting to be delayed but it also shined a light on how the international community has failed to get the virus under control.
Over the past two years, the global scientific community has figured out the pathogen that causes Covid-19 and developed vaccines and antivirals to fight the virus. Rapid production has meant that everyone in wealthy countries who wanted a vaccine has gotten one. But the market, on its own, has failed to provide enough for the rest of the world.
Since October 2020, a large number of WTO member countries have sought a temporary waiver of the organization’s expansive intellectual property restrictions, which limit the production of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests to certain pharmaceutical companies. But a few WTO members have blocked this initiative, which is needed to ensure sufficient supply of Covid-19 medicines to inoculate the world and end the variant cycle that otherwise will indefinitely prolong the pandemic.
The WTO must not postpone this decision. It needs to call an online meeting of its General Council and adopt the waiver this week.
While citizens in wealthy countries are already on to their boosters, fewer than 7% in low-income countries have even had their first shot.
As the Omicron variant shows, as long as there are raging outbreaks anywhere, Covid-19 will mutate and the possibility of more infectious or deadly strains increases. That’s why, unless people everywhere are vaccinated, we face the prospect of an endless pandemic.
The underlying problem is a lack of global supply. The world required at least 11 billion doses for 2021 before boosters and vaccination of children began. Billions of doses will be needed every year for boosters and to combat new variants, and universal access to the promising new anti-virals will be crucial to save the lives of those who do get infected.
The WTO waiver is an obvious way of increasing supply and helping put an end to the pandemic for good.
The WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which went into force in 1995, requires the organization’s member nations to enforce expansive intellectual property restrictions domestically. Last year, South Africa and India proposed a temporary suspension of the TRIPS barriers for Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests. This would allow the many qualified producers in developing countries to manufacture effective vaccines and other Covid medicines rather than face death and economic devastation while waiting for drug companies and rich countries to send help their way.
It’s only fair play. The highly effective mRNA vaccines now on the market were developed using billions in US and European government (meaning taxpayer) funds.
Health advocates have long warned of TRIPS’ danger for developing countries’ access to medicine, but no one imagined that advanced countries would put drug company profits above the well-being of their own citizens. The Biden administration initially won praise for supporting the WTO waiver back in May. President Biden’s statement on Omicron last week urged countries to adopt the waiver now. But the President has put too little effort into actually achieving final agreement at the WTO to enact the waiver.
Now another October has come and gone, and while more than 100 countries support a waiver, the European Union, pushed by Germany, plus Switzerland and the United Kingdom, continue to oppose. They are exploiting the WTO’s consensus decision-making practices, and the unusually passive role the US is playing in the negotiations to block the waiver, even as millions of people die waiting to be inoculated.
Western market democracies are taking a major reputational hit for denying billions of people in poor countries access to life-saving vaccines and treatments. And the WTO is rightly viewed globally as an obstacle to ending the pandemic. An international “rule of law” and an economic system that puts profits over lives is not going to win the hearts and minds of those in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, China and Russia have been working with governments throughout the developing world to build vaccine production facilities. China has already provided doses to more than 80 countries that total nearly half of the more than 7 billion administered worldwide, and just announced a plan to send one billion additional doses to Africa. Russia has shared its vaccine technology widely. Both countries have been vigorously and successfully waging vaccine diplomacy, although it has not been without controversy.
China’s existing Sinovac and Sinopharm shots are less effective and its two homegrown mRNA vaccines are still in final trials. (BioNTech, the German firm partnering with Pfizer, also shared its mRNA vaccine technology with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, but only for sales within China.) Russia’s Sputnik V production has encountered problems, and there is a limited supply of its shots. Yet even so, to a lot of the world it looks like autocracies value lives and democracies value profits.
It is imperative for the US to exert leadership and get the WTO to organize an emergency online General Council meeting this week to deliver a meaningful waiver deal.
Back in September, the Biden administration underscored the importance of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population. The recent announcement about the administration’s plan to work with companies in figuring out how to increase production spotlights the ongoing shortages. But how many more doses that proposal delivers — and when — remains unclear.
Omicron highlights the urgency of the WTO waiver. The President needs to put pressure on the few countries, all close US allies, that are holding out so production can ramp up around the world. None of this will happen without stronger US leadership. And, to put it in a narrow-minded way, nothing could be more important to the health of Americans and the American economy.
In delivering the WTO waiver and leading the mission to end the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden has a golden opportunity to restore US standing around the world and revive his domestic support, which has been hard hit by continuing public anxiety about this seemingly endless pandemic.
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