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WTO faces renewed scrutiny amid omicron threat
Pressure is mounting on World Trade Organization (WTO) members to make a deal on an intellectual property waiver for the COVID-19 vaccines after it postponed its Ministerial Conference due to the emergence of the omicron variant.
India, South Africa and other countries have been pressing for the waiver, which wealthier countries have not embraced. The Biden administration publicly supports the waiver, which would allow more countries to manufacture vaccines without securing the intellectual property rights. Advocates say the administration has not put muscle behind its backing.
The delay of the conference, where members were slated to consider a proposed waiver suspension, has sparked concerns that the wait could further hinder the global vaccination effort and widen the vaccine gap between wealthy and poor countries.
The omicron strain itself has resurfaced calls, including from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to temporarily lift intellectual property protections on vaccines to allow more countries and manufacturers to produce the doses without facing legal consequences.
Several advocates and experts said the highly mutated strain requires a "sense of urgency" from the WTO and its members, as the globe races to vaccinate its population in enough time to avoid more variants from developing and spreading.
"You think that would be a wakeup call for the WTO to actually get serious about an IP waiver during this pandemic emergency," Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said. "And yet, [they] use it as another excuse to kick the can down the road."
"While Rome is burning, the WTO is fiddling," he added.
But the vaccine makers as well as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) have voiced opposition to a waiver, saying it's not an effective solution to speed up vaccinations and could complicate vaccine manufacturing.
The WTO's General Council decided to push back the conference scheduled for this week after several governments, including Switzerland where its headquarters are located, instituted travel restrictions and quarantines once South Africa and Botswana reported the omicron variant.
Upon the discovery of the omicron variant, President Biden issued a statement last week calling for the WTO members to support the intellectual property waiver for vaccines.
"The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," the president said.
While the Biden administration expressed its support for a waiver more than six months ago, lawmakers and organizations had requested the U.S. push harder for a waiver at the now-postponed conference.
Sanders, who was a part of this call, blasted the WTO in a statement saying the "time for debate" over an intellectual property waiver "is over," as millions worldwide await their turn for their first shot.
"As we face the potential threat of a new coronavirus variant, we must move even more urgently to dismantle the vaccine inequality that undermines our ability to confront this crisis," the senator said.
India and South Africa issued their waiver proposal in October 2020, but governments, such as the European Union, United Kingdom and Switzerland, have opposed suspending the property rights which requires a unanimous vote from WTO members.
Supporters of the waiver had set their hopes on the WTO ministerial conference as a potential turning point in the effort, Mohga Kamal-Yanni, a senior policy adviser to the People's Vaccine Alliance, said. But she noted a waiver does not have to be issued by the ministerial conference and could be approved by members sitting on the WTO's General Council.
The inequity in vaccination coverage worldwide is stark with continents like Europe and countries like the U.S. seeing almost 60 percent of its population fully vaccinated, while Africa as a whole has a rate less than 8 percent, according to Our World in Data.
"Just from a public health point of view, this is a disaster because you can't control the virus in one country or two countries or in one region, even like the whole of Europe, and ignore it everywhere else," Kamal-Yanni said. "It will come back."
But Anne Pritchett, PhRMA's senior vice president of policy, research and membership, said the group believes a waiver "would do nothing to help save lives globally."
"It could have a damaging impact on global vaccine availability and kind of sow uncertainty in terms of the 200 or more and more partnerships that we have around the globe to increase manufacturing capacity," she said.
"Given the nature of these very complex vaccines, simply handing over patents does not mean that any manufacturer, including any vaccine manufacturer, would be able to produce safe and effective vaccines," she added.
A spokesperson for Pfizer told The Hill a waiver would "not offer real solutions" to expanding vaccine access, as the industry is prepared to develop enough vaccines for the world by mid-2022. Pfizer specifically estimates to give 2 billion doses to low- and middle-income countries this year and next year, with the company so far delivering 783 million to those nations.
The pharmaceutical company said it is improving its supply chain by expanding current facilities, adding more suppliers and partnering with other sites and manufacturers, the spokesperson said.
The U.S. has touted donations to other countries, with White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients saying Friday that the country has committed to donating 1.2 billion doses and has delivered 291 million doses to 110 countries. This includes 11 million shipped on Friday.
But advocates for an intellectual property waiver said the donations will not give the world enough doses to get the global population vaccinated before potentially more vaccine evasive variants emerge.
"We're talking about a need of billions and billions of doses," Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said. "So the problem is not basically redistributing the slices of the pizza that we have. We can't just redistribute slices. We have to build new pizza factories. We need billions more slices."
"That's what's so horrifying," she added. "We know the way out and we're not doing it."
Josh Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said while seeking a waiver is likely not "the most speedy route" to expand global vaccination production and called on vaccine manufacturers to share their technology to get "the most rapid results."
"The new variant is exactly the reason why global manufacturing capacity is so important," he said. "We need to vaccinate the world, and the world needs capacity for vaccination as quickly as possible in order to reduce the chances of even more harmful variants."