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WTO agrees partial patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

The World Trade Organization has reached agreements on a partial patent exemption for Covid-19 vaccines and agreements in several other areas of global contention, following a tense six-day ministerial meeting that has renewed some confidence in the battered multilateral trading system.

Trade ministers temporarily extended duty-free trade in digital products such as films, computer software and data, and agreed to curb some fisheries subsidies and reduce food export restrictions.

The WTO’s 164 members also agreed to update the organization’s working practices and try to revive the dispute settlement system, which has been crippled for years by the US’s non-cooperation.

Piyush Goyal, India’s trade minister, who has been personally accused by many countries of holding talks with the demand for exemptions hostage, told reporters it was “one of the most successful ministerial the world in a long time.” The decisions taken were “a signal that the multilateral order will not be broken,” he said.

Valdis Dombrovskis, European Trade Commissioner, said the WTO was on a “positive path” and added: “The WTO can respond to the acute problems and challenges we face and is ready to reform itself to meet its rulebook in the 21st century.”

But the Geneva meeting postponed several controversial decisions for the next meeting in December 2023.

The meeting was supposed to end on Wednesday, but went on until Friday morning after two all-night sessions. Talks to cut farm subsidies were shelved, but countries agreed to ban restrictions on the sale of their food to the World Food Program as the organization grapples with food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The lifting of the WTO “Trips” agreement governing intellectual property was opposed until Thursday by the UK, which said it would undermine pharmaceutical research. But the deal will allow governments to force companies to share their vaccine recipes over the next five years.

The agreement failed to meet a demand from India and South Africa to exempt all Covid-related vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, although a review is due in six months. Instead, governments can issue compulsory licenses to domestic manufacturers, but must compensate the patent holders.

Campaigners were disappointed with the result. “It’s hard to imagine anything with less benefits than this in response to a massive global health emergency,” said James Love, director of the non-governmental organization Knowledge Ecology International.

India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia had opposed the extension of the digital customs moratorium, saying it was stealing billions of dollars in revenue from developing countries. But small businesses in many poor countries said they depended on foreign software products to stay competitive, trade officials said.

The extension of the moratorium until the next ministerial meeting followed heavy lobbying by business groups.

“Businesses and consumers around the world are already dealing with a food insecurity crisis and an energy crisis. Thanks to this WTO outcome, we narrowly avoided a data crisis,” said Jane Drake-Brockman of the Australian Services Roundtable.

But the business response was generally muted.

“Clearly there is a tremendous need for a vibrant WTO capable of addressing shared global priorities, but this ministerial meeting exposed the increasingly strict boundaries to meaningful outcomes that require unanimous agreement,” said President Jake Colvin. of the Washington-based National Council on Foreign Trade.

The curb on fisheries subsidies marks the first time the WTO has regulated trade solely on sustainability grounds, after discussions to that effect have dragged on for 21 years. Countries will have to limit subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; overfishing; and financial support to vessels fishing in unregulated international waters.

Fisheries subsidies total about $35 billion worldwide, of which $22 billion directly contributes to overfishing, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. According to the UN, the number of stocks being fished at biologically unsustainable levels has increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 34.2 percent in 2017.

The agreements were a triumph for WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference in the lives of people around the world,” she told delegates at the closing ceremony. “The results show that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”

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