The ministers agreed to intensify efforts to achieve the goals of the “Trade and Health Initiative” to address export restrictions and to prevent supply chain disruptions for essential medicines and medical supplies.
They also considered the proposal on a waiver for several aspects of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, including intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines.
The “Ottawa Group” – a coalition of countries that have met regularly to develop a series of proposed actions and ideas on reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO) and responding to COVID-19 – convened to discuss trade and health issues related to equitable access to vaccines, including export restrictions on essential medical goods, manufacturing capacity for vaccines, intellectual property rights (IPRs), and the transfer of technology.
Mary Ng, Canada’s Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, hosted the virtual meeting on 26 May 2021.
The ministers agreed to intensify efforts to achieve the goals of the “Trade and Health Initiative” to address export restrictions and to prevent supply chain disruptions for essential medicines and medical supplies. The Group proposed the initiative in a 24 November 2020 communication, co-sponsored by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the EU, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and Switzerland. Its emphasis is mainly on issues related to trade in goods, and participants are looking at how their pledges could translate into commitments by the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12).
The ministers discussed how to better support WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her ongoing work with the global pharmaceutical sector to accelerate the production and equitable distribution of effective, safe, and affordable COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies. They urged the engagement of all members in the WTO’s broader response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ministers also considered the proposal on a waiver for several aspects of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), including intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines, which, reportedly, enjoys the support of over half of the WTO’s members. India and South Africa proposed the waiver in October 2020 in an effort to ensure greater availability of diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, and other medical products.
The two co-sponsors have since circulated a revised proposal to serve as the starting point for negotiations on a waiver text. They were joined by a series of additional co-sponsors, including the African Group, Bolivia, Egypt, Eswatini, Fiji, Indonesia, the LDC Group, Maldives, Mozambique, Mongolia, Namibia, Pakistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
Among the changes in the revised proposal are further details on what “health products and technologies” would purport to cover under the waiver, along with language on the waiver’s duration. The co-sponsors are proposing an initial three-year period, with its termination thereafter subject to a decision by the WTO General Council. This would differ from standard practice, where the General Council decides whether to renew a waiver, rather than assuming the waiver remains in effect unless there is consensus to end it.
In a statement, Minister Ng noted Canada’s readiness to discuss proposals on a waiver for intellectual property protection, in particular for COVID-19 vaccines, under the TRIPS Agreement. “Since the introduction of the […] waiver proposal,” she said, “Canada has actively worked with partners to identify barriers to vaccine access – many of which are unrelated to [intellectual property], such as supply chain constraints.”
Canada, along with the EU, Switzerland, and others, have been among those that have not yet backed the TRIPS waiver in principle – unlike the US, which made headlines when it announced plans to support it in May. At the EU member State level, however, some leaders have already indicated that they may be willing to support it. Various members of the Ottawa Group have questioned whether there are sufficient flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement, as affirmed in the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, to address concerns raised by the waiver’s proponents and whether more can be done at the national level to make compulsory licensing efforts quicker and more effective to implement.
Nagasaka Yasumasa, Japan’s State Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, highlighted the importance of facilitating technology transfer for expanding the production of safe vaccines, “with the cooperation of vaccine developers.” The minister did not specify, however, whether Japan would be willing to back a waiver to certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement.