DG Okonjo-Iweala calls on WTO members to tackle vaccine inequity

Speaking to G20 leaders and the heads of international organizations on 21 May, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said WTO members could contribute to greater equity in the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by lowering supply chain barriers, fully using existing production capacity, and addressing issues related to intellectual property, access and innovation.

DG Okonjo-Iweala, who has described equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics as “the moral and economic issue of our time,” told the Global Health Summit, co-hosted by the European Commission and the Italian G20 Presidency, that the pandemic had made clear that “policymakers need to think of preparedness, response, and resilience as one interconnected package”. 

International cooperation on trade is important for all three elements of this package, she said, arguing that trade has been a “force for good” in the pandemic by enabling access to much-needed medical supplies. Even as the value of global merchandise trade shrank by more than 7% last year, trade in medical supplies increased by 16%, and by 50% for personal protective equipment, she noted.

With regards to the WTO’s role in addressing the global vaccine scarcity, DG Okonjo-Iweala said members could act on three fronts.

“First, tackling supply chain issues holding back vaccine production, from export restrictions and excessive customs bureaucracy to problems accessing raw materials or hiring skilled workers. The WTO can help with supply chain monitoring and transparency.”

The second action is helping manufacturers scale up by “keeping supply lines open and matching underused capacity with unmet needs,” which DG Okonjo-Iweala declared as “necessary to save lives now”.

“In the longer run, especially if COVID is with us for years, we need a more geographically diversified global vaccine manufacturing base. … Having less than 0.2% of capacity in Africa is not a recipe for supply resilience.”

The Director-General said the WTO would work with the World Health Organization, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations on the COVAX vaccine manufacturing taskforce to advance equitable access.

Finally, DG Okonjo-Iweala said WTO members “must address issues related to technology transfer, knowhow and intellectual property,” including the proposed temporary waiver from WTO intellectual property rules for vaccines and other pandemic-related products.

“We must act now to get all our ambassadors to the table to negotiate a text,” she urged. “This is the only way we can move forward quickly, we can’t move forward with speeches and polemics.”

“I am hopeful that by July we can make progress on a text and by our Twelfth Ministerial Conference in December, WTO members can agree on a pragmatic framework that offers developing countries near automaticity in access to health technologies, whilst also preserving incentives for research and innovation.”

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