NGOs urge Biden to push for changes to WTO’s COVID waiver text

Oxfam America, Partners in Health and other civil society groups urged U.S. President Joe Biden to press for changes in a draft agreement on waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, underscoring divisions over the current text.

In a letter sent to Biden on Monday, and viewed by Reuters, the groups said an “outcome document” reached after months of discussions between the main parties – the United States, the European Union, India and South Africa – fell short of his “righteous goal” of removing IP barriers for COVID vaccines.

Trade ministers attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, are expected to discuss the issue at an informal meeting on Wednesday after an initial meeting on the draft by the World Trade Organization’s 164 members in early May.

WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is pushing for a deal to be agreed ahead of a ministerial meeting beginning June 12.

The groups petitioning Biden said the text “does not waive even the patent barriers necessary to deliver the increased vaccine production that you rightly identified as necessary to save lives from the extraordinary threat of the pandemic.”

And they warned that it “adds new obstacles and conditions” limiting countries’ use of existing flexibilities in WTO rules.

A majority of WTO members support the waiver idea, first proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020, but some members worry that the current proposal is too narrowly focused on vaccines, leaving aside treatments and diagnostic tests.

The deal must pass by consensus and any member of the organization has the right to a veto.

The groups, which also include ReThink Trade, Citizens Trade Campaign, and NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, sent Biden a detailed chart mapping out changes needed to ensure the draft achieved the goals that he first laid out in May 2021.

They urged Biden to push for changes despite EU resistance, and to expand the waiver to include test and treatments.