‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

Not done yet, but the group-of-four could give the WTO some long-awaited success

Updates
June 17, 2022 — members agree on the waiver at the Ministerial Conference.

From mid-May to June 10 — members work on the compromise draft and discuss further revisions. The text submitted to the Ministerial Conference is here. Earlier versions are here.

May 19, 2022 — An informal meeting to take stock of two days of real negotiation on the compromise among about 30 delegations on May 16 and 18, described by chair Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone’s ambassador) as “arduous”.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members on all sides to sort out their reservations over the proposed compromise, so that a deal on waiving some intellectual property protection for COVID-19 can be struck by the Jun 12-15 Ministerial Conference. See this Twitter thread.

May 3, 6 and 10, 2022 — The compromise text was finally put to the rest of the membership at a May 3 informal meeting — WTO news story, and the text (html or pdf) — and discussed in a May 6 formal intellectual property council meeting and in the General Council on May 10. Both bodies consist of the full WTO membership.

Members were non-committal about accepting or rejecting the text. But this compromise draft allowed them for the first time to agree broadly to start negotiating on a text in the search for a solution. None of the Quad presented the text as their own, just an attempt to secure an agreement.

See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and this earlier Twitter thread and WTO news story on the intellectual property council. The blog post below had been updated accordingly.

March 28, 2022 — Three of the “Quad” could still be consulting internally on whether to accept the compromise, according to Geneva trade sources.

South Africa is said to have told members in an informal General Council meeting on March 28 that the draft was still being discussed domestically. Only the EU is understood to have completed its internal processes and to have accepted the draft, while India and the United States had not yet confirmed their support for it.

The draft would still have to go to the full membership in the intellectual property council, but no date has been set for the council’s next meeting.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 17, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 17, 2022

Behind-the-scenes negotiations by four key members have raised the prospect of an agreement on intellectual property and the COVID-19 pandemic, which would also help lift the World Trade Organization out of one of its worst crises.


For nearly a year, the United States, […] has worked constructively with other WTO Members to facilitate discussions and bridge differences that might lead to […] consensus across the 164 Members of the World Trade Organization to help end the pandemic.

In the days ahead, […] we look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress and stakeholders as all WTO Members consider the text released by the WTO Director-General.

Statement by US ambassador to the WTO María Pagán, May 3, 2022

News broke in mid-March 2022 that the four — the EU, India, South Africa and the US — had agreed on a compromise text on waiving the obligation to protect intellectual property related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A slightly modified text was circulated to members on May 3, 2022. A cover letter from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala summarised how the proposed compromise was negotiated.

Although members offered some initial reactions in meetings over the following week, it still had to be negotiated, agreed, and possibly amended by the WTO’s membership of 164. (See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and earlier this Twitter thread and this WTO news story on the intellectual property council.)

Anything can happen in that process, but so far the compromise has not been rejected outright — it has been accepted as a basis for negotiations. After all, most of those driving the main positions are among the four.

The likelihood of a breakthrough was first reported by Priti Patnaik of Geneva Health Files on March 11.

A month earlier she had broken news of what turns out to be an important part of the compromise — to limit the countries eligible to use the waiver. She reported that India and China would be excluded and that India would resist. How accurate that was at the time is unconfirmed, but the outcome would exclude China and not India.

What are the implications of the proposed compromise? How does it fit into the earlier debate about the waiver? How does it differ from the original proposal?

These are some immediate thoughts. Underlying them are two fundamental questions. Both, in totally different ways, are important:

  • What would this do for dealing with the pandemic?
  • What would this do for the WTO?

Some of the answers will emerge when the full membership gets down to negotiating the compromise in the WTO body responsible for intellectual property, the TRIPS Council. (TRIPS is trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.)

Continue reading “‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO”

8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver

What the countries are saying — and it’s more than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the waiver

UPDATES

In February it was “no sign of a breakthrough”. By mid-March there were signs
More in: ‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

The waiver was agreed at the Ministerial Conference on June 17, 2022. The final text is here.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 18, 2022

The deadlock in the World Trade Organization (WTO) over a proposal to waive intellectual property protection related to COVID-19 is now well into its second year with no sign of a breakthrough.

India and South Africa first made the proposal in October 2020. They produced a revised draft the following May, saying it was based on discussions in the months in between, but the revision produced little change in positions.

The proposal would temporarily waive countries’ obligations under WTO rules to protect some types of intellectual property, for products used to deal with COVID-19.

That’s the general idea. Every part of it is debated.

NEW: WHO’s African ‘hub-and-spokes’ vaccine technology set-up

Continue reading “8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver”

No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver

Many delegations argued that ministers meeting online would not be able to break the deadlock

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 10, 2022 | UPDATED JANUARY 11, 2022

India’s call for an online WTO ministerial meeting to  discuss the proposed intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 fell well short of consensus at an informal General Council meeting today (January 10, 2022).

Many delegations countering that members would have to be much closer to agreement on the proposed waiver before a meeting of ministers would be able to contribute to a solution, said sources familiar with today’s discussion of just over two hours.

Continue reading “No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver”

Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic

Members unable to endorse David Walker’s draft ministerial declaration

Updates
May 9, 2022 — In 2022, Honduras Ambassador Dacio Castillo took over as “facilitator”. He continued to modify the draft according to members’ comments. The aim was to agree on the text for the upcoming Ministerial Conference in parallel with a compromise deal on intellectual property. Castillo had succeeded Walker as General Council chair for 2021. See the final paragraph here.

New dates — On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13. The dates were later fixed for June 12–15.

Late on Friday November 26, 2021, WTO members had agreed in an urgently-called meeting to postpone indefinitely the four-day Ministerial Conference due to start the following Tuesday.

The reason was new travel restrictions announced by Switzerland earlier in the day after a new COVID-19 variant of concern was discovered in southern Africa. The variant had also been detected in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Switzerland banned flights from southern Africa and required COVID-19 tests and quarantine for travellers from the region and the three other countries. This would effectively prevent ministers and officials from those countries from attending the WTO Conference in Geneva.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 20, 2022

Four days before trade ministers were due to gather for the first World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in four years, their delegates in Geneva were divided on what to recommend they should say in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The disagreement on Friday (November 26, 2021) centred on parts of a draft ministerial declaration and post-conference action plan designed to reflect members’ shared approach to the pandemic and how they would address their differences through the action plan.

The delegates had then intended to continue to try to break the deadlock over the weekend. But their efforts have been interrupted because the Ministerial Conference is now postponed as a result of new Swiss travel and quarantine restrictions.

Continue reading “Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic”

NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?

If only the authors had read the minutes to see what WTO members are actually saying

BEFORE I BEGIN
I know. This is asking for trouble. Commenting critically on the letter will trigger accusations (again) that I am an “enemy” of the “TRIPS waiver” and happy to see people die from the pandemic. Neither is true.

For those who believe outright that the WTO is evil and that intellectual property protection is its devilish handmaiden, there is no point in reading this. They are immune to complexity and facts. Sadly, too much of the NGO letter adopts that tone.

But if we are interested in looking beyond the rhetoric at what is really happening between countries in the WTO, then the letter misses its target. A few delegations may use it as a weapon in the debate. Others, rather than being persuaded by the letter, will simply dismiss it on the grounds that “they don’t know what they are talking about”, particularly on what the reality is in the WTO.

On one point I agree with the letter: the complaint about reduced facilities for non-governmental organisations at WTO ministerial conferences. The more access they have, the better informed they will be.

(Note this now has a link to David Walker’s November 22, 2021 draft)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 23, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 26, 2021

Two weeks before the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, over 80 non-governmental organisations wrote to WTO director-general Nogozi Okonjo-Iweala and all WTO members, slamming “sham” work on trade and COVID-19 at the expense of poorer countries.

The letter (full text below) also opposed current moves to reform the way the WTO works, particularly the increased use of negotiations among subsets of the membership when consensus is elusive among the full membership.

The endorsing organisations include some international heavyweights such as Amnesty and Oxfam, alongside a long list of national groups — health, poverty-alleviation and environmental campaigners, labour unions and more.

Their strongly-worded attack lands direct hits on two issues that are important for Okonjo-Iweala herself.

It also misrepresents how many developing countries see their own interests on these subjects. It has failed to look properly at what is actually going on, what countries themselves have said, and it condemns processes that many developing countries consider to be essential.

Continue reading “NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?”

‘Fisheries subsidies’ has been agreed by WTO ministers. What’s next?

The implications of the next procedural steps are little known. This could still take some time

UPDATE
Agreement was reached at the
rescheduled June 12–17 Ministerial Conference
Consensus was achieved by leaving out disciplines on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing (Article 5). Members agree to complete negotiations on these in four years or else the new agreement will lapse (Article 12).

The final text is here.
It says the new agreement will be inserted into Annex 1A (goods) after the Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Agreement. An official document certifying that the text is correct was circulated on July 13, 2022.

More updates are listed here
The points raised in the article below still hold even though it was first written before the original 2021 dates for the Ministerial Conference.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 17, 2021 | UPDATED AUGUST 18, 2022

It was always touch-and-go whether World Trade Organization (WTO) members could strike a deal on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies when their ministers were due to meet first in November 2021, and then rescheduled in June 2022.

The agreement that they did eventually reach is incomplete. Consensus was achieved by leaving out disciplines on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing. Members agreed to complete negotiations on these in four years or else the new agreement will lapse.

But even with the deal that was struck, there are more procedures to go through before it becomes WTO law and before it applies to WTO members.

That’s right. Even though agreement was reached on June 17, 2022, for now (July 2022) it is still not effective. It is not part of WTO law.

This article is about what is needed to turn the agreement into legal rules. How long that will take is up in the air, but it could be a year or two at least. It might even take longer.

That said, there’s nothing to stop members implementing unilaterally what they agree. On an issue like this they should do so anyway. But they would not be able to use, for example, WTO dispute settlement against other countries because there would be no legal rules yet.

The procedures are worth bearing in mind. They are not well-known, even among people who follow trade.

This was demonstrated when I ran a little poll on Twitter on this subject. Out of 150 people who responded, 86% were wrong.

Continue reading “‘Fisheries subsidies’ has been agreed by WTO ministers. What’s next?”

WTO COVID-19 waiver: does the new draft move the talks forward?

A closer examination—paragraph by paragraph—of the re-draft shows how little has changed and how much may still lie ahead

UPDATE
‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO
March 2022. This leads to the compromise decision, June 17, 2022, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva

THE DISCUSSIONS IN THE WTO
An overview of the discussion to February 2022 is in 8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver
An earlier summary of how members responded to this text is in a box at the end, along with an example of the chairman’s report to the General Council.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 25, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 20, 2022

The long-awaited revised proposal related to the COVID-19 pandemic, to waive obligations on intellectual property protection, was finally circulated to members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 25, 2021.

This will allow the first negotiations to proceed in the WTO’s intellectual property council since the US swung behind the idea of a waiver, if not necessarily in the form proposed. (The council’s official name is the TRIPS Council — for “trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights”.)

A closer examination of the contents shows that a lot may still have to be negotiated. In other words, this is not just about accepting or rejecting the waiver — to waive or not to waive. What is in the text and what is left out are all significant. We can expect some rough times ahead.

Continue reading “WTO COVID-19 waiver: does the new draft move the talks forward?”

One to watch: Bolivia’s bid to import a Canadian COVID-19 vaccine

Multiple tests: Will Canada respond? Is the WTO system too cumbersome? Is this a better route than waiving intellectual property rights?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 12, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 12, 2021

News broke late yesterday (May 11, 2021) that a Canadian company, Biolyse Pharma, had agreed to supply Bolivia with 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine for COVID-19, without the patent-owner’s permission.

But the deal cannot go ahead until the Canadian government issues a “compulsory licence” for Biolyse Pharma to make the vaccine in Canada and export it to Bolivia.

Although the objective is to get a cheaper version of the vaccine to a developing country — Bolivia — a lot of the focus will be on Canada, which now holds the key.

Continue reading “One to watch: Bolivia’s bid to import a Canadian COVID-19 vaccine”

The proposed COVID-19 intellectual property waiver: too soon to predict

Will the US prevail? What actually lies ahead? How long will it take? And if the waiver is agreed, what impact will it have?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 7, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 6, 2022

It’s tempting to conclude that the proposed waiver on World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic will swiftly be agreed now that the US is supporting it.

It’s also tempting to assume that if the waiver is agreed, then intellectual property on vaccines and other COVID-19 products will be freely available and in use around the world.

Neither of those will necessarily happen, and almost certainly not quickly.

Continue reading “The proposed COVID-19 intellectual property waiver: too soon to predict”

India and South Africa pour cold water on alternative approach to WTO talks

On the day she started her term as new WTO chief, Okonjo-Iweala faced a challenge to her vision

SEE ALSO
Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’
Participants in the present plurilaterals: Technical note

For a taste of the intense debate on this in the WTO General Council,
see this 13-page extract from the minutes (March 2021 meeting)

There are also signs that the “plurilateral” approach can
produce results. See “‘Plurilateral’ WTO services
deal struck after breakthrough text released

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2021 | UPDATED JANUARY 10, 2022

It’s tempting to call it a bombshell. But the warning signs have been around for some time. Nevertheless a new paper from India and South Africa signals a tough ride for the new head of the World Trade Organization’s ambitions to drive negotiations forward.

The paper criticises negotiations involving only part of the WTO’s membership. They are called “plurilaterals” and are seen as a way of breaking deadlock when consensus is elusive.

Continue reading “India and South Africa pour cold water on alternative approach to WTO talks”