South Africa urged to reject EU offer on COVID waiver

Leading economists have urged South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to reject an EU and US compromise that would provide a temporary waiver on the intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines, warning that “a bad deal is worse than no deal." EPA-EFE/ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES [EPA-EFE/ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES]

Leading economists have urged South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to reject an EU and US compromise to provide a temporary waiver on the intellectual property rights of COVID vaccines, warning that “a bad deal is worse than no deal”.

Last week, the Office of the United States Trade Representative confirmed that a compromise had been reached to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

USTR spokesperson Adam Hodge said that South Africa, India, the European Union and the United States had agreed in principle to waive certain provisions of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS.

He added, however, that the sides are still working on the wording of a final text.

In October 2020, South Africa and India called for the World Trade Organisation to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments for the duration of the pandemic to enable them to start their own large-scale manufacturing of generics.

Following February’s EU-African Union summit in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised that officials from both sides would continue to negotiate and reach an agreement by spring.

However, the compromise proposes that only the patents on COVID-19 vaccines be waived for up to five years. It does not cover any copyright or intellectual property related to the algorithms and other tools needed to make mRNA vaccines.

“We support you fully in rejecting this misleading and ineffectual proposal, which represents the European Union’s belligerent blockade of any actual waiver of IP barriers and the United States’ insistence that the IP waiver it supports be limited to vaccines,” wrote Jayati Ghosh and Nobel Memorial Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz along with Oxfam’s Africa director Peter Kamalingin in a letter to Ramaphosa on Tuesday.

Under the proposed compromise, the waiver will apply to the World Trade Organisation members who exported less than 10% of the world’s vaccine doses in 2021, a provision that catches the EU, China and the US.

“New variants are also expected to emerge, with the potential to further devastate countries socially and economically,” the letter states.

It continues that the key to facilitating socio-economic recovery while protecting lives in developing countries lies in a meaningful outcome of the TRIPS waiver proposal.

“This text reflects the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies in preserving the deadly status quo,” they added.

However, the compromise has been welcomed as “a major step forward” by World Trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who vowed to work to ensure that it obtains the support of all WTO members.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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