WTO Members welcome Quad document as basis for text-based negotiations on pandemic IP response

At a General Council meeting on  May 10, 2022,  WTO members agreed that the outcome document emerging from the informal process conducted with the Quad (European Union, India, South Africa and the United States) opens the prospect for text-based negotiations on an intellectual property response to COVID-19. Members welcomed the proposal as a positive development and thanked Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Deputy Director-General Anabel González, as well as the four members of the Quad, for their efforts in trying to find a way forward on this long-standing issue.

DG Okonjo-Iweala thanked delegations for the “constructive spirit” shown during the General Council meeting.

“Everyone is ready to pitch in together to get an outcome based on this,” she said. “To me, it’s pretty amazing. There’s a lot of work still to be done, but I think if we put our minds to it, we can do it.”

Following an impasse of more than a year in the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the text was forwarded by DG Okonjo-Iweala and shared immediately by TRIPS Council Chair Ambassador Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone) with all delegations, who had the opportunity to express their initial views about the proposal at a formal meeting on the TRIPS Council on May 6, 2022.

In their discussions facilitated by DG Okonjo-Iweala and working with Deputy Director-General Anabel González, the Quad adopted a problem-solving approach aimed at identifying practical ways to clarify, streamline and simplify how governments can override patent rights, under certain conditions, to enable diversification of production of COVID-19 vaccines.

While acknowledging that the proposal sets out a solid basis for further discussion and could lead to a long-awaited and urgently needed outcome, many delegations said more time was needed to review the document internally before they could engage in substantive discussions. Some members noted that further engagement is needed to assess specific issues, such as which members are eligible to benefit from the new proposal.

China announced at the meeting that it will not avail itself of the flexibilities under the Quad waiver text provided that language is used opening benefits of the waiver to all developing members while encouraging those with capacity to export vaccines to opt out. China and several other members rejected a second option in the text that would restrict waiver eligibility to those developing countries that exported more than 10 % of the world’s vaccine doses in 2021.

Several delegations took the floor to praise China for showing leadership in this process. The DG also thanked China for its announcement.

“China has made a bold move today and we should recognize it,” she said.  “I think it really opens up the spirit of constructiveness which I hope will be forthcoming from our members to get a workable proposal out of this.”

Ambassador Gberie urged members to be pragmatic in working for an outcome on the waiver text by the time ministers gather in Geneva for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) on  June 12-15, 2022.

“I think we should look at the document on its merits and see whether this is something that we can take forward to the stage of negotiation,” he said. “I think it is important that we reflect on this because it is, frankly, the only product we have, the only game in town. We don’t have a lot of time.”

The chair of the General Council, Ambassador Didier Chambovey (Switzerland), also encouraged all delegations to “remain positively engaged and adopt a pragmatic and constructive attitude” in discussions on the draft outcome text.

The issue of food security and the impact of the Ukraine crisis was also addressed at the General Council meeting. The United Kingdom presented a joint statement endorsed by more than 50 WTO members underlining the importance of maintaining open and predictable agricultural markets and trade to ensure the continued flow of food. Members then took the floor to voice their views on how best to address the sharp rise in commodity prices and ensure food security, particularly among countries most dependent on food imports.

DG Okonjo-Iweala said she hoped that members could reach a multilateral solution to this emergency issue. She urged members that can put additional food on the market to do so while addressing the sensitivities of some on the issue.

“I think we can open our minds and see how all these members can be supported so that we can help us bring down the high food prices we see on the market,” the DG said.