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In a major breakthrough, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Wednesday agreed to begin text-based negotiations for patent waiver on coronavirus vaccines and treatments as members of the European Union (EU) did not object to the proposal originally put forward by India and South Africa. However, dissenting countries could still throw a spanner in the works and limit the scope of a final deal.

“Today the TRIPS Council agreed with consensus to go ahead with text-based negotiations on our TRIPS waiver proposal. All naysayers removed their blockade," a commerce ministry official said under condition of anonymity.

After conclusion of the two-day formal Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council meeting, the chair Dagfinn Sørli said he will start the consultation process and called for an open-ended TRIPS Council plenary meeting on 17 June.

“In line with our suggestion that the deadline to conclude negotiations is the end of July, the chair highlighted the need for intensive consultations to reach conclusion by 21 July when the general council is scheduled to meet next. Meanwhile, we will engage with all members on line-by-line text negotiations," the official said.

The co-sponsors of the patent waiver to boost supplies of life-saving drugs and vaccines for covid presented a revised proposal on 21 May seeking that the temporary waiver be in place for at least three years, given the uncertainty regarding the vaccine effectiveness on children and against new variants. However, the European Union came out with its own proposal highlighting existing WTO rules such as compulsory licensing that allows countries to grant licences to manufacturers without the consent of the patent holder.

With countries agreeing to text-based negotiations, hopefully there will be some result, though one has to wait for the content of it, said Harsha Vardhana Singh, former deputy director general, WTO. “TRIPS waiver is a necessary condition. It creates the foundation for countries to work further to address other regulatory conditions to ramp up vaccine production," Singh said.

Dissenting economies have questioned the effectiveness of a TRIPS waiver for fast-tracking access to covid vaccines across the world. In a meeting on 23 February they had asked co-sponsors if spare manufacturing capacity is available to produce vaccines even if a waiver was granted. EU said that while it agrees that ramping up of manufacturing capacity is a clear priority now and any available manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world should be used to the full extent, “any indication of where underused capacity exists as indicated by some members would be very welcome".

Last week, India had said that the co-sponsors of the proposal recognize that intellectual properties (IPs) are not the only barrier to augmenting manufacturing and addressing supply side constraints. “However, we do believe that IPs are the biggest barrier in addressing supply-side constraints and thus need to be addressed on priority. The waiver is not sufficient but rather a necessary element of a multipronged strategy. The TRIPS waiver is a necessary, proportionate, and temporary legal measure for removing IP barriers and paving the way for more companies to produce covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics or diagnostics by providing them freedom to operate without the fear of infringement of IP rights or the threat of litigation," it said.

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