WTO: General Council discusses India’s call for virtual ministerial meeting on pandemic response

General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) convened the 10 January meeting in response to India’s recent proposal to hold a virtual Ministerial Conference on the WTO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a proposed waiver of relevant intellectual property protections. At the meeting, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged WTO members to urgently step up their efforts, suggesting that with the requisite political will, members can in the space of the coming weeks reach multilateral compromises on intellectual property and other issues so that the WTO fully contributes to the global response to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

India on December 23, 2021 sent a letter to the General Council Chair calling for a virtual ministerial meeting to be held on the issue of the WTO response to the pandemic, including the proposal to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for COVID-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics (IP/C/W/669/Rev.1). The same day, Ambassador Castillo circulated the letter to all delegations, indicating that he would “conduct consultations and convene an open-ended informal General Council meeting” on the matter during the week of 10 January.

In her remarks, DG Okonjo-Iweala called for urgent action towards a comprehensive WTO outcome on pandemic response. “More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our Twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated.”

“We at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against COVID-19,” she added.

DG Okonjo-Iweala updated members on her efforts, together with Deputy Director-General Anabel González, “to support an informal group of members to converge around a meaningful acceptable outcome that can be built upon by the wider membership to bring a successful conclusion to the IP issue.” Work had continued over the holidays, she said. “It is slow but steady progress, and we are hopeful that this approach can help us together find the direction we need.”

“There is no better time to build convergence than now,” the Director-General added, urging all members to participate actively and constructively in the ongoing processes at the General Council and the TRIPS Council.

She noted that while pandemic response remained the most urgent endeavour facing WTO members, not least given the spectre of even newer coronavirus variants, many members had reached out to her to emphasise the importance of other items on the WTO agenda, including fisheries subsidies, agriculture and WTO reform. She stressed that these areas remained priorities for outcomes, and expressed hope “that we can all agree on getting results as soon as possible.”

The gathering heard a range of views on the proposed ministerial meeting, notably on timing, issue coverage, and the need to further narrow differences in Geneva ahead of ministerial engagement.

Describing the meeting as “useful,” General Council Chair Ambassador Castillo said he would continue to hold consultations with members on the Indian proposal, underlining “the urgency and importance of reaching a meaningful outcome.” A common WTO response to COVID-19 “remains an urgent priority for the membership,” he said.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.