Photo credit: Fabiola Ortiz | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2021

WTO Chief Faces First Test Over Generic Corona Drug Patent

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK (IDN) — The first African woman to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is facing her first test of leadership as the leaders of poor and rich nations spar over the rights to generic versions of the COVID-19 vaccine, currently held by the rich nations.

In the current debate, over 80 developing countries led by South Africa and India are demanding a waiver of patent rights in order to boost the production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations. Blocking them are the richer members of the world trade group.

The Western countries include Britain, Switzerland, EU nations and the United States, which have large domestic pharmaceutical industries.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American economist, became WTO director-general on March 1.

Anna Marriott, the health policy advisor for Oxfam International, blasted the rich nations. “(They) are vaccinating at a rate of one person per second yet are siding with a handful of pharmaceutical corporations in protecting their monopolies against the needs of the majority of developing countries who are struggling to administer a single dose,” she charged.

“It is unforgivable that while people are literally fighting for breath, rich country governments continue to block what could be a vital breakthrough in ending this pandemic for everyone in rich and poor countries alike.”

Oxfam is part of The Peoples’ Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of global and national organizations and activists united under a common aim of campaigning for a ‘People’s Vaccine’, backed by past and present world leaders, health experts, faith leaders and economists.

Amnesty International and Christian Aid called the move by Western nations to prevent generic or other manufacturers making more vaccines in poorer nations “an affront on people’s right to healthcare.”

Western nations maintain that protecting intellectual property rights encourages research and innovation and that suspending those rights would not result in a sudden surge of vaccine supply.

In a press interview, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called the trade talks “vitally important,” but gave ground to the Western countries. “We need to come to some sustainable agreement,” she said. “But for now, I’ve advocated what I’ve called a third way, which is we need to boost manufacturing right away so that we can have increased supplies.”

Former President Donald Trump frequently railed at the WTO, blocking the appointment of new members to a crucial panel that hears appeals in trade disputes. An interim panel was named to replace the appeals body, however, allowing disputes to be heard despite the Trump obstacle.

Talks on patents will continue twice in April before the next trade council meeting on June 8-9. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 March 2021]

Photo: WTO Chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Source: WTO

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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