New WTO chief calls for more ‘flexibility’ on access to COVID vaccines for developing countries

MEPs back measures to scale up global production through patent waivers.
WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

21 May 2021

WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has called for more “flexibility and automatic access” to Coronavirus vaccines for developing countries.

She was speaking on her first ever visit to Brussels at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Trade committee on Thursday.

It is estimated that more than 80 percent of available vaccines have been distributed to rich countries, while poor countries have received only 0.2 percent of deliveries.

In reply to MEPs’ questions over what measures are needed to accelerate equitable access to vaccines, Okonjo-Iweala, who was recently appointed, argued in favour of expanding vaccine production and ending export restrictions.

“The IP waiver is a hot issue on which I cannot take sides. But we need more flexibility and automatic access for developing countries, and at the same time we have to protect research and development” WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Her comments come after a separate debate in the Parliament earlier this week on ensuring global access to Coronavirus shots.

On Wednesday, there was a lack of consensus among MEPs on a temporary waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, a move supported by some including US President Joe Biden. He has proposed lifting patents to facilitate access to vaccines.

Some MEPs called on the European Commission to support a waiver as an “essential” element in accelerating the rollout of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries but other MEPs argued that a patent waiver was a “false good idea” that would not speed up the provision of vaccines and would harm innovation.

MEPs on both sides criticised the US and the UK for hoarding doses to excess at a time when poorer countries have little or no access to jabs.

Elsewhere on Thursday, the Commission said it had signed a third contract with the pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Pfizer for an additional 1.8 billion doses. These, it said, are for distribution between the end of this year until 2023. There is an option to purchase an additional 900 million doses.

In her address to the Trade Committee, Okonjo-Iweala said: “Getting the Intellectual Property rights waiver for vaccines will not be enough”.

She listed three other “routes”: reducing export restrictions and reinforcing supply chains for vaccines, working with manufacturers to expand production, including in emerging countries with “idle capacity” such as Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand or Bangladesh, and transferring the necessary technology and expertise to produce “complicated vaccines.”

She told MEPs “The IP waiver is a hot issue on which I cannot take sides. But we need more flexibility and automatic access for developing countries, and at the same time we have to protect research and development.”

Trade Committee chair, German Socialist member Bernd Lange, said, “Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s presence here, on her first visit to Brussels, shows her conviction that the involvement of Parliaments is crucial.”

“Her appointment has given the WTO new impetus and the discussion on vaccines provides the WTO with the opportunity to make it relevant again. Delivery is now key, so we need concrete results at the Twelfth Ministerial Conference. It’s now or never; either multilateralism revives, or it will become irrelevant.”

Later on Thursday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, heralded the new BioNTech-Pfizer deal, saying, “It is good news for our long term fight to protect European citizens against the virus and its variants.”

“BioNTech-Pfizer has been key in helping us deliver enough doses by July to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population. With this new generation contract, production and delivery in the EU of up to 1.8 billion doses are guaranteed. Potential contracts with other manufacturers will follow the same model, to the benefit of all.”

“Actively scaling up global production should be our top priority to get out of the global pandemic. The EU must engage in constructive dialogue for a temporary waiver of certain aspects of the TRIPS agreement in the WTO. I call on the Council and the Commission to keep a holistic approach towards expanding global production” Samira Rafaela MEP

Centre-Right EPP Group MEP Peter Liese, a medical doctor and his group's health spokesman, noted, “To prevent the rise of dangerous mutations, the entire world population must be vaccinated as quickly as possible. Our help should include emergency aid, i.e. sending equipment to produce high-volume oxygen and medical staff, increasing vaccine delivery, strengthening the WHO and transferring technology.”

Further comment on the issue comes from Renew Europe Group leader in the European Parliament Dacian Cioloş who said, “Given the urgency of vaccinating the world's population quickly, the real question is: what is being done to facilitate access to vaccines for all now?”

“Joe Biden's proposal to lift patents addresses an important question, but provides only a beginning of answer. Our full answer must be to put in place an international vaccine solidarity plan as soon as possible.”

Dutch MEP Samira Rafaela said, “Actively scaling up global production should be our top priority to get out of the global pandemic. The EU must engage in constructive dialogue for a temporary waiver of certain aspects of the TRIPS agreement in the WTO. I call on the Council and the Commission to keep a holistic approach towards expanding global production.”

Valdis Dombrovskis, European Commissioner for Trade, said that while the EU is ready to discuss the issue of patent waivers, its proposed solutions include limiting export restrictions and resolving production bottlenecks.

MEPs will vote on a temporary waiver of patent rights at next month’s plenary.

Share this page
Sponsored