Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS

Geneva — World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has urged the EU and all other WTO members to end export restrictions on vaccines and other medical goods needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is the only way we can get a freer flow of goods and get them to countries that don’t have access,” Okonjo-Iweala said on Tuesday.

In January, the EU announced new requirements to force drug companies to obtain prior authorisation before sending shots manufactured in the EU to other countries.

The move, which was aimed at addressing the slow rollout of vaccines across Europe, quickly sparked condemnation from the World Health Organization (WHO) and EU trading partners that feared a wider spiral into protectionism.

“If you restrict access then down the line it will be a problem,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “Variants materialise quickly and maybe you have to start all over again. So it is actually in the self interest of each member not to have these prohibitions and restrictions.”

Globally, the latest vaccination rate is 6.4-million doses per day, on average, according to the Bloomberg Covid-19 vaccine tracker. At this rate, it will take an estimated 4.9-years to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine. Yet there are vast differences between countries with the US and the UK an track to reach herd immunity in less than a year, while India, Mexico and Russia are among nations where that would take 10 years or more.

Vaccine equity

The WTO’s 164 members formally selected Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, as leader of the Geneva-based trade body on Monday to serve a four-year term. Until December she was chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi).

She said her most immediate priority as the WTO’s new leader is to use trade to help combat the pandemic.

Last week, she met with the CEOs from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca to discuss prospects for expanding access to vaccines in poorer countries through licensing agreements that help protect the companies’ intellectual property (IP) rights.

She said AstraZeneca has agreed to certain licensing agreements that would allow nations such as India, Mexico and Thailand to increase their capacity to manufacture vaccines while preserving the company’s research and innovation.

Okonjo-Iweala said such an approach would be more successful than current contract manufacturing agreements in which companies establish facilities abroad and produce vaccines without disclosing any trade secrets.

“Vaccines are a little bit different because they require, not just IP but technology transfer and capacity,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

‘Third way’ solution

Vaccine licensing agreements could provide what Okonjo-Iweala calls a “third way” solution to a debate at the WTO over whether nations should agree to a broad waiver to IP rights for vaccines and other Covid-19 medicines.

In 2020, the US, EU, Switzerland and a range of other nations rebuffed a joint proposal from India and SA that sought to waive sections of the WTO’s IP rules to allow developing nations to increase their manufacturing capacity without facing penalties.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a WTO agreement, “The private sector has accepted the social challenge of making sure vaccines get to poor countries,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“They have found a way in which they can allow manufacturers in developing countries to manufacture this product and have access to some of the knowledge. Not all, but at least enough.”

“It’s practical,” she said. “It’s working and it’s midway between a waiver and not doing anything.”



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