Deadline for COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics waiver to be extended

A molecular geneticist in protective clothing runs a test for SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease in a hospital lab in the Rhineland Region, Germany, 1 April 2020. [Sascha Steinbach/EPA/EFE]

A recommendation from World Trade Organisation (WTO) Council on Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) urges WTO members to extend the deadline indefinitely for deciding on whether to have a waiver for COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

The initial deadline for a decision was Saturday (December 17), a date set in the WTO ministerial decision of 17 June 2022, which saw WTO members agree on a TRIPS waiver only for vaccines.

But in a new document, the TRIPS Council “recommends that the General Council extend the deadline” for a decision on whether to broaden the WTO TRIPS waiver to include COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics as well.

This happened despite criticism from campaigners, who argued that its scope must also include therapeutics and diagnostics in order to be able to ease some of the intellectual property (IP) barriers of equitable global access to COVID-19 products.

According to a Geneva-based trade official, the final recommendation was a proposal submitted by the US Ambassador, María Pagán. It is significantly shorter than the previous draft report and does not include a new deadline, making postponement de facto indefinite.

Throughout the Autumn, the negotiations in the TRIPS Council were almost at a complete halt as the country delegations upheld their positions.

At the last informal TRIPS meeting before the first deadline on Thursday (15 December), the countries could not even agree on a report detailing how the discussions on a potential extension had taken place, according to the trade official.

Given another day to talk, the countries finally agreed late Friday (16 December) to the postponement of the deadline, passing the matter to the WTO General Council, which met between 19 and 20 December to approve the recommendation.

Discussions for waiver on COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics at standstill

No progress has been made on the decision to extend the waiver of part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics, despite the looming deadline.

“Distraught” by the postponement

Last week, 50 MEPs signed a letter addressed to the EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis and the EU Council on trade voicing their support for a broad TRIPS waiver.

Green MEP Sara Matthieu was the initiator of the letter and told EURACTIV after the recommended postponement that she is “really distraught by the fact that this decision is yet again being postponed.”

“It’s very disappointing. I think it means that for yet another year, people will be dying because of the lack of access to tests and medicines,” Matthieu said.

“I really feel that it’s now up to European leaders and up to the Commission to push for a broader waiver as soon as possible. I think if you don’t do that you have a lot of human misery on your conscience,” she added.

Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and head of inequality policy at Oxfam, also criticised the postponement.

“As many as seventeen million people are estimated to have died in the time that the WTO has bickered over intellectual property rules for tests and treatments. To say that more time is needed to consider the issue is utter nonsense,” Lawson said, highlighting that “even the EU has previously said it would support action on tests and treatments.”

At the same time, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) repeated its previous stance claiming that there is no evidence to support a TRIPS waiver on COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics, when asked for a comment by EURACTIV.

“Instead, if adopted, the proposal will have long-term adverse effects on the current pipeline for COVID-19 therapeutics and for future pandemics,” IFPMA stated, adding that “while these discussions continue, the ongoing uncertainty is unwelcome.”

IFPMA highlighted the importance of incentives stemming from intellectual property (IP)
protections, which they say have been critical for a fast response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to “future health emergencies.”

Rather than IP, they say that “there are real systemic infrastructural issues that need to be addressed” in dealing with global access inequality and that they “urge Member States to address these trade and health-related concerns.”

WTO ministerial conference delivers TRIPS waiver to criticism

Members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Friday (17 June) reached an agreement to waive certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), though the deal has been criticised by both pharmaceutical firms and civil society groups.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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