Last fall, the governments of India and South Africa asked the World Trade Organization to waive some provisions in a trade agreement governing intellectual property rights so that Covid-19 medical products can be more easily accessed, especially by low-income countries. Their argument is that, unless a waiver is issued, diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines will not be available promptly in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand. But the effort has stalled as some wealthy nations have balked at the idea. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the proposal is “misguided and a distraction from the real work of reinforcing supply chains.” For its part, the pharmaceutical industry insists that intellectual property is not a barrier to access. Meanwhile, the incoming WTO director-general last week hinted at a “third way” that could involve licensing agreements. We spoke with Mustaqeem De Gama, the counselor at the South African Mission in Geneva, about the rationale and prospects for the proposal, which will be discussed at yet another WTO meeting next week. This is an edited version of our conversation.
So let’s start at the beginning. Why did you push this proposal?
We have been very clear, at all times, that we prefer initial collaborative efforts in an international forum from the get-go. We have indicated that we are not opposed to COVAX, the World Health Organization program that allows countries to pool resources and purchase vaccines together. But there are various interests at play. The COVAX objectives are very limited. The goal is to cover 20% of needs of countries that participate in the scheme. This means that 80% of any country’s needs — whether they self-finance their purchases or otherwise — would involve purchasing vaccines on the open market. That’s a shortcoming. It may be a good start and enable countries to start to immunize the most vulnerable populations, but not reach herd immunity.