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The vaccine scandal tests global trade ties after the WTO meeting was postponed

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The vaccine blockade is just one example of how the power of the WTO to establish new trade rules and agreements is increasingly in doubt. Pandemic-affected governments are unsure whether open markets are still a goal worth pursuing, while protectionist trade policies often play better at home. Tensed relations between key players such as the US, China, the European Union and India are also helping to fuel an existential crisis in the 26-year-old world trade body.

Failure to reach an agreement on vaccine patents or other lengthy disputes would raise more doubts about the WTO’s intent as more and more countries enter into bilateral or regional agreements. It will also raise questions about whether the former Nigerian finance minister, after just nine months in office, is the right person to pull the organization out of its pit.

WTO members 164 have also been unable to complete a two-decade negotiation aimed at reducing harmful fisheries subsidies that have helped deplete ocean reserves. And there is still no consensus on how to review the WTO dispute settlement system, an issue that prompted the United States to mutilate the group appeals body by blocking the appointment of new judges.

At stake “is the future of the multilateral trading system, if it is to increase its service to the world economy,” former WTO Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff said this month. “If they do not have an agreement, that is just another black spot.”

Since taking office as head of the WTO in February, Okonjo-Iweala has focused most of its energy on resolving the patent dispute. The war puts a group of more than 100 developing countries led by South Africa and India in favor of the widest possible abolition, against the EU, Britain and Switzerland, who argue that logistical barriers rather than patent protection are the biggest obstacles to vaccine growth. availability.

Okonjo-Iweala said she planned to continue with a series of meetings scheduled earlier this weekend. They will include ambassadors to the WTO based in Geneva and visits by negotiators who had arrived early.

“The delegations in Geneva need to be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work for which we are in charge,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

President Joe Biden earlier this year met with proponents halfway through agreeing to support the abolition of IP protection for vaccines.

it reiterated that support in a statement Friday, saying the new variant showed “the importance of walking in this fast” to increase vaccine production globally. But India and South Africa have stood by the broader package they first proposed in October 2020.

It’s very difficult, Okonjo-Iweala admitted during a recent visit to Washington, DC I’m trying to unite members on both sides of this equation.

For Okonjo-Iweala, there is the added dimension of proving that someone who was not immersed in WTO rules before taking office could effectively run the organization.

Although she was the most popular among member states of the eight candidates vying for the top WTO post last year, then-President Donald Trumps trade chief Robert Lighthizer blocked her selection for more than three months. , complaining that she knows nothing about the main WTO mission. .

But for many others, Okonjo-Iwealas credentials make it apt to take on organizational responsibility in the midst of a pandemic. She was the official no. 2 at the World Bank and has a doctorate. in regional development and economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From 2016 to 2020, she was chair of the board for Gavi, a public-private sector alliance that aims to increase the availability of vaccines in poor countries. Okonjo-Iweala, the first African woman to lead the WTO, is also one of the world’s leading development economists.

Biden Administration did not express uncertainty about her abilities. She shed her weight quickly and enthusiastically after her candidacy.

However, James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a group that favors the facilitation of patent protection, said Okonjo-Iweala joined the organization with the view that she was the CEO of the WTO. Faced with the much more limited realities of the role after taking office, Love believes she experienced a cultural shock.

At a press conference last week, Okonjo-Iweala dismissed the suggestion that she did not have enough trading experience to lead the WTO and had misjudged how much power it would have to get countries to agree.

“I knew what I was getting into,” she told reporters. “I’ve always said CEO, if you want to call it that, or DP has soft power and the ability to use that soft power. And we’ve used it wisely.”

So far, Okonjo-Iwealas efforts to help countries reach a compromise on vaccine patents have failed. But this has not been for lack of effort. She brought together governments and vaccine developers to discuss the WTO’s role in vaccine parity in its first month after taking office.

Her ability to get those players to the table so quickly was the first evidence of her very good network and her expertise as a political operator, said a Geneva-based diplomat. She continued that contact, along with targeted messages to specific countries about the role she sees them playing in the ongoing negotiations, the diplomat added.

Okonjo-Iweala also realized early on that the goal of producing more vaccines could begin to be resolved without a waiver if the big pharmaceutical companies went on board.

“Even if you hit the pharmacists, at some stage you also have to work with them, to see how you can increase production,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

This was reflected in her so-called third way proposal, in which she was trying very hard to call for technology transfer, voluntary licensing, partnerships, including, of course, with Africa, said Thomas Cueni, general director of the International Federation. of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

Okonjo-Iweala deserves credit for some of the progress in this area, Cueni said. While questions remain about the details of many of the plans, numerous deals have been announced by major pharmaceutical companies to increase vaccine production capacity, including plans to build mRNA factories in Senegal and Rwanda.

The WTO chief also helped push the last two deals between drug manufacturers and the Medicines Patent Pool to share licenses for coronavirus antivirals, Love said.

One of her first missions after taking office was to address trade barriers to getting coronavirus products to people who needed them. This prompted the WTO to publish a list of barriers to trade in critical goods, which it has kept up to date.

When we look at 10 months ago, versus now, I think many of these trade barriers have disappeared, Cueni said, praising Okonjo-Iweala for the pressure on countries.

However, developing countries say this does not eliminate the need to relinquish intellectual property.

Without a meaningful waiver there can be no meaningful WTO response to the pandemic, said Sangeeta Shashikant, a legal adviser at the Third World Network, which advocates on behalf of developing countries.

Pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, value strong patent protections by fostering the rapid development of vaccines. They also say the waiver is unnecessary due to the rapid expansion of vaccine production.

“We expect 12 billion vaccines to be produced by the end of this year and another 16 billion produced in the first half of 2022,” said Joe Damond, executive vice president for international affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, members of the which. include vaccine manufacturer Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies. “This is what is currently on the line. So any waiver of IP would not be timely to add to that significantly.

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