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Vaccine patent negotiators agree compromise formula

World Trade Organization chief Okonjo-Iweala applauds progress but warns of struggle to convince all members states to back it

The lead team of negotiators has agreed a compromise on patents waiver over three to five years for Covid-19 vaccines which will require ratification by all WTO members. But it is a substantial dilution of the all-embracing patent waiver proposed by India and South Africa 18 months ago when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming apparent.

Under the deal, only developing economies which are members of the WTO and exported less than 10% of the world's vaccine doses in 2021 would be able to take advantage of the proposed patent waiver.

That would be a constraint in India which is one of the world's biggest vaccine producers and a major exporter. Negotiators have suggested that testing and treatment technologies could be added to the waiver later this year. These might include the copyright or intellectual property related to the algorithms and other tools needed to make mRNA vaccines.

If the compromise wins consensus support, it will be WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's first major victory at the organisation's helm.

'This is a major step forward and this compromise is the result of many long and difficult hours of negotiations,' she said.

'But we are not there yet. We have more work to do to ensure that we have the support of the entire WTO Membership.'

It is a breakthrough and allows the European Union and the United States to deliver on their promise of agreement on a critical ethical issue just as western states are pressing developing countries for diplomatic and commercial support on UN resolutions against Russia (AC Dispatches 21/2/22, Warm words but too many tough decisions have been postponed).

The compromise will allow for African states and others to produce their own generic versions of vaccines. Last week, the Office of the US Trade Representative confirmed a compromise has been reached on Covid-19 vaccine patents (AC Dispatches 17/12/21, South Africa pushes on vaccine patents and donates shots to the region).

USTR spokesman Adam Hodge said that South Africa, India, the EU and the US have agreed in principle to waive certain provisions of the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS.

'The difficult and protracted process has resulted in a compromise outcome that offers the most promising path toward achieving a concrete and meaningful outcome,' Hodge said. He added that the sides are still working on a final text.

And pharmaceutical conglomerates have been stepping up their plans for their own manufacturing facilities in Africa. Last week, Moderna announced its first African manufacturing facility in Kenya, to produce mRNA vaccines, including Covid-19 vaccines. The company is expected plans to supply up to 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines to the continent each year.

It also has plans to start filling doses of its Covid-19 vaccine in Africa as early as 2023.

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