Falling by the wayside

New Delhi has not backed its WTO proposal to suspend intellectual property rights on COVID-19 pharma products with robust action

Falling by the wayside

There are signs of a stir at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to reinforce the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifteen long months after South Africa and India first proposed that WTO keep in abeyance its TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement that protects intellectual property rights (IPR) so that medicines, vaccines and diagnostics to fight the SARS-COV-2 virus could be manufactured freely, the body suddenly appears to be in a hurry to arrive at a deal on the contentious plan.

In mid-January, WTO's general council held a meeting in response to India's call to hold a virtual ministerial conference to discuss the waiver.

This could have been a reaction to the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the virus and its subsets across the United States, Europe and India.

Reports from Brussels speak of secret parleys in Geneva involving the European Union, US, India and South Africa at a senior political level, to thrash out a deal on the proposal that has been moribund since October 2020.

The waiver will allow generic manufacturers to override IPRs on medical products, especially vaccines, and make these available sufficiently across geographic locations at a much cheaper cost.

This has become an imperative since Big Pharma companies, in particular Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have been supplying their costly vaccines to rich nations and leaving the populations of poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America majorly unprotected.

Experts say the new variants of the SARS-COV-2 virus have emerged on account of this.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala appears to have done a turnaround on her initial stand that a TRIPS waiver was not necessary, which became apparent when she suggested a "third way" to bridge the COVID-19 vaccine shortfall based on more licensing agreements.

She has now urged member countries to urgently step-up efforts to reach a compromise agreement. What this entails is cloaked in uncertainty since the plurilateral negotiations are being held away from public view.

India appears to be keen to conclude a pact now, implying that it is ready to make the compromises that the EU and the US have been pressing for. "I think we should really move with all speed to try and conclude this by the end of February," Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement.

This seems a distinct possibility, since WTO is scheduled to hold a technical workshop to support the discussions around COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution, with representatives of some top vaccine makers scheduled to speak.

India's on-off diplomacy and the lack of a sustained campaign in 2021 have not helped matters, leading to speculation that the Union government was using the waiver proposal as a bargaining chip for trade gains elsewhere.

Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal has made periodic statements calling for the waiver, the latest being towards the end of January when he said that a successful resolution of the proposal should be at the core of the global response to the pandemic, as "both a health and moral imperative for all of us".

Yet, suspicions remain about where India's real interests lie. It has turned its back resolutely on issuing compulsory licences (CLs) for life-saving drugs, having assured major Western trade partners that it will not be deploying the option that is one of the flexibilities enshrined in the TRIPS agreement.

The country's credentials have also been dented over the past year as it failed to share the know-how for its home-grown vaccine Covaxin, in which public research laboratories played a key role. This has been a signal failure, an omission that has left many wondering, especially in Africa, about India's bona fides.

The Modi government's refusal to licence the vaccine even to its own public sector manufacturing units raises many questions. Such a move would have allowed the country to increase supplies of much-needed jabs both at home and for supply to low-income countries elsewhere.

Its ban on exports of vaccines in the wake of the huge surge in COVID-19 cases during the second wave last year meant a major shortfall in promised supplies to the World Health Organisation's global vaccine sharing facility, Covax.

To date, the government has done nothing to share the IP of its own vaccine. This smacks of hypocrisy, reviving long-standing doubts about where India's interests diverge from those of other developing countries on several critical issues.

Clearly, this is not the India of the HIV-AIDS pandemic era, which appeared on the global scene as an intrepid challenger to the monopolistic cartel of multinational drug giants and their predatory pricing of the urgently needed life-saving medicines.

Nor is its pharma industry the same one that provided life-saving drugs to Africa and to other parts of the world where the disease was wreaking havoc.

As this column has been pointing out, India's generic companies have all opted for the safe and easy route of being contract manufacturers to Big Pharma, content with the risk-free and assured profits bestowed by voluntary licences.

Even Yusuf Hamied of Cipla Ltd, the daring knight exemplar of generic production, is no longer a challenger. The man who stunned the world by producing life-saving drugs at a fraction of the original cost, today dismisses the idea of CLs. Cipla is a spent warrior of the good fight against exploitative drug majors, having joined the queue for the voluntary licence handouts.

This pattern has been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, by both industry and the government. In addition to the export ban on vaccines that has ensured adequate supplies at home, there is the promise of supplies from foreign vaccines that have been given approval for emergency use.

The waiver has become almost unnecessary for India. In the case of therapeutics too, voluntary licences granted by the originator companies have rendered the waiver very nearly superfluous.

That may be the reason why reports from Brussels hint at excluding India — and China — from the waiver that may apply only to certain geographies like Africa.

India will have to decide what is in its national interest and what it envisages as its global role. Can it really continue to be the "pharmacy of the world" as it was once described? DTE

Views expressed are personal

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