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Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property waiver 'will not be enough' to address inequality, WTO chief warns

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Waivers on intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines alone are an insufficient way to address the inequality in jab distribution between rich and poorer nations, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has said.

India and South Africa have officially requested that the WTO waive IP protections on vaccines to boost access for low-income countries, which have only received 17% of all global Covid jabs so far.

After initially blocking the plans, US President Joe Biden’s administration signaled its support for the idea earlier this month, although the EU remains split over a vaccine patent waiver.

Speaking to members of the European Parliament on Thursday, WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said there were other ways of addressing vaccine inequality that also need to be considered.

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“I want to be very clear that getting the [intellectual property] waiver will not be enough,” she told the parliament’s Committee on International Trade.

She said WTO members should also be reducing export restrictions as well as the transfer of technology and know-how, and focus on ramping-up global production capacity.

Manufacturers should also focus on mobilizing the “idle capacity” of some countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal and South Africa, and by commissioning available space and means for production.

“I’m convinced that we can agree on a text that gives developing countries that kind of access and flexibility, whilst protecting research and innovation,” she added.

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MEPs said in a statement on Wednesday that there is a “lack of consensus” in parliament on vaccine patent waivers.

Some lawmakers viewed the plans as “essential” for a more equitable rollout of jabs, but others echoed concerns shared by some business people, that waivers “would harm innovation” and would not speed up vaccine access.

The EU will present its own alternative plan to the WTO in June, the bloc’s Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said on Wednesday.

It includes upping capacity and allowing countries to grant licenses to vaccine manufacturers with or without the patent-owner’s consent.

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