WTO chief seeks solutions to 'glaring' vaccine inequity, upbeat on IP waiver


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© Reuters. WTO Director-General Ngozi attends an interview with Reuters at the WTO headquarters in Geneva

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By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the World Trade Organization said on Monday a meeting this week to tackle “glaring” inequity in COVID-19 vaccine allocation will be attended by major manufacturers and look at solutions such as firing up idle or under-used manufacturing plants in Africa and Asia.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian minister and World Bank executive who took up the position last month, has vowed to “forget business as usual” at the ailing 25-year-old global trade watchdog and said her top priority was to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The April 14 meeting will bring together vaccine makers from the United States, China and Russia, ministers from wealthy and developing countries, and banking officials to discuss vaccine export restrictions, scaling up manufacturing and a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs and shots, she told Reuters.

“The vaccine inequity is glaring,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “I’m a pragmatic person and what hurts me now is that people are dying from not having access to vaccines.”

“We have the technology in the world to save lives so I want to get onto it and find some solutions that will make a difference.”

Among the possible practical solutions are re-purposing animal vaccine plants to make COVID shots or firing up unused capacity in countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Senegal by connecting them with financiers like the European Investment Bank or the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

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The meeting, the first of a series, will also raise the controversial waiver of TRIPS intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs on which members are deadlocked, amid opposition from wealthy countries.

However, Okonjo-Iweala was upbeat: “I am hearing more pragmatism from all sides and that is leading me to think that members will come to the table and agree on something that will work for all sides.”

She praised countries that were exporting some of their COVID-19 vaccines but also said she had brought up vaccine export curbs in talks with Thierry Breton who heads the EU executive’s vaccine task force and trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis, and with Indian officials.

“I am urging: let us try not to impede the supply chain,” she said, adding she thought her message was “being heard”.

“DELIVERY UNIT”

Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and first African to head the WTO and since beginning on March 1, observers say she has often worked late hours at the headquarters on Lake Geneva, nearly emptied by COVID restrictions.

Asked what the WTO could deliver in time for a major ministerial meeting planned in December, Okonjo-Iweala said she wanted a framework on trade and health, a deal on ending harmful fisheries subsidies as well as progress on agriculture, e-commerce and reform of the WTO’s Appellate Body.

The WTO’s top dispute settlement body was rendered inoperable after former U.S. President Donald Trump blocked judge appointments in a bid to overhaul it. Okonjo-Iweala said she had had two “very good” meetings with the USTR Katherine Tai on the matter and was waiting for more input from Washington.

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“I feel the atmosphere is supportive,” she said of her first six weeks. “But I feel we must deliver because if we don’t that support may disappear.”

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