WTO to intensify talks on easing access to COVID-19 vaccines

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 file photo, frozen vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are taken out to thaw, at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium. Envoys from World Trade Organization member nations are taking up a proposal to ease patents and other intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to help developing countries fight the pandemic, an idea backed by the Biden administration but opposed in other wealthy countries with strong pharmaceutical industries. On the table for a two-day meeting of a WTO panel opening Tuesday June 8, 2021, is a revised proposal presented by India and South Africa for a temporary IP waiver on coronavirus vaccines. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 file photo, frozen vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are taken out to thaw, at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium. Envoys from World Trade Organization member nations are taking up a proposal to ease patents and other intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to help developing countries fight the pandemic, an idea backed by the Biden administration but opposed in other wealthy countries with strong pharmaceutical industries. On the table for a two-day meeting of a WTO panel opening Tuesday June 8, 2021, is a revised proposal presented by India and South Africa for a temporary IP waiver on coronavirus vaccines. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

GENEVA – World Trade Organization member nations agreed Wednesday to intensify talks geared at improving access to COVID-19 products, as developing nations push for a proposal to ease patents and other intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines and some wealthier countries remain stiffly opposed.

A WTO panel focusing on intellectual property, which includes patents on technological know-how like vaccines and the processes to manufacture them, wrapped up a two-day meeting on Wednesday with an agreement to start a “text-based process” for pulling together proposals to improve the fight against COVID-19 through the Geneva-based trade body's intricate system of rules.

The goal is to help jump-start lagging efforts to get vaccines to developing-world countries that badly need them, according to a Geneva-based trade official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

New, informal talks will start next week among members of the panel, with an eye toward pulling together a report for a July 21-22 meeting of WTO ambassadors.

South Africa and India floated a proposal in the fall for a temporary easing of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and tests – known as an “IP waiver, While many developed countries with strong pharmaceutical industries hesitated or were outright opposed to the idea, the debate received a jolt last month when the Biden administration announced support for granting IP waivers for just vaccines.

Since Washington's change of stance, a number of other Western countries have softened their opposition to the the waivers, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and Norway, the trade official said, relaying information from deliberations in the closed-door WTO talks held Tuesday and Wednesday.

Those countries, as well as China, haven’t rallied fully behind the South African and Indian proposal, and view it as only part of what they think should be a more comprehensive approach to getting COVID-19 products to the developing world, the official said. Some countries, such as the European Union’s 27 members, Britain, Switzerland and Korea, continue to oppose waivers as a tool in the pandemic.

In the two days of talks, South Africa and India presented a recent revision of their proposal – now backed by over 60 countries – that stressed a temporary, three-year waiver for COVID-19 products, the official said.