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The World Trade Organization (WTO) will begin text-based negotiations for patent waiver on coronavirus vaccines and treatments, a proposal first made by India and South Africa. Mint looks at what lies ahead:

What is the proposal before WTO?

It was jointly made by India and South Africa to WTO’s council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in October. It seeks a general waiver on patents and other barriers on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for covid-19 for the duration of the pandemic. Faced with the biggest health crisis in a century, the proposal aims to improve access to treatments that would help nations, especially low-and-middle-income ones, save lives. It was met with resistance from the US, European Union (EU) and other developed countries, but the Biden administration eased the US stance in May.

Why is the waiver needed?

All vaccine makers have struggled to rapidly scale up capacity. These include Pfizer, its partner BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson that have received billions of dollars in advance purchase agreements from wealthy nations. The proposal was opposed by pharmaceutical firms and some European countries that argued the problem was US restrictions on export of jabs and raw materials, which has led to a shortage of drugs like remdesivir. India’s point is that the situation over the last one year, with poorer countries struggling to source treatments, makes the waiver crucial.

Race against time
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Race against time

What are text-based negotiations?

These involve discussions between WTO member countries to chalk out the broader and finer details of an agreement. This is done till all members reach a consensus. But the need for a consensus makes the process challenging: in this case the EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK have been staunchly opposed to a waiver.

What could be the potential bottlenecks?

A consensus is likely to be difficult due to opposition from rich countries. India and South Africa have revised the proposal and now seeking a temporary waiver for at least three years, given the uncertainty regarding vaccine effectiveness on children and against new variants. But last week, the EU made a counterproposal, suggesting minimum export restrictions, encouragement of voluntary licensing and use of compulsory licensing provisions in WTO.

How much time is it likely to take now?

India has urged all WTO members to conclude negotiations by the end of July. This may be unlikely if talks are not expedited. The talks are also likely to be tricky. The US backs a waiver only on preventive jabs, and not curative treatments. Biswajit Dhar, professor and head of the Centre for WTO Studies at JNU, said it would be interesting to see how developed countries balance two opposing objectives during talks: protecting their firms’ commercial interest and not be seen as obstructing a proposal that has widespread public support.

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