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Can COVID–19 IP Waiver Proposal be WTO’s Savior?

The world is presently battling a war waged by an invisible enemy. What started to be known as a localized respiratory disease soon turned out to be a global epidemic. As soon as the world’s best brains managed to jingle certain medical ingredients to prepare vaccines for COVID-19, it was realized that mere vaccine development will not suffice the plummeting health requirements of the 7.7 billion population planet rather it will be the affordable accessibility to inoculation that will ensure equity in protection from the virus.

While Vaccine for All is the utopian ideal, there is a crucial need to maintain practicality, to retain rationality and avoiding haste in our decisions. The pharmaceutical companies which were able to make a vaccine were rewarded with assignment of Intellectual Property (IP) rights which allowed them to exclude others from reproducing their innovation without express permission. Considering such patent rights to be a blockade in effective diagnostics and therapeutics of COVID-19, India and South Africa moved a proposal in WTO for obtaining exemption from certain provisions of WTO Agreement on TRIPS in October 2020.

While the discussion about whether this proposal should be passed or not is being evaluated from the health perspective, it is pertinent to look at it from the perspective of WTO as an institution. The 164-member international trade body has been struggling to justify the relevance of its existence in the recent past. The reviving fervor for economic nationalism had been further pushing this organization towards a peaceful demise. Countries across the globe had been favoring regional agreements instead of a WTO brokered global settlements. The operationalization of RCEP, USMCA, SCO are just a few indicators towards declining interest level of the members towards WTO. Furthermore, the inability of WTO to stand for its objectives has further decreased its importance. It has been unable to promote free trade, reduce tariffs or even function as an effective dispute settlement body. Its silence on the interplay of health vs economics during Covid-19 and its inability to guide free flow of goods during and after domestic lockdowns has also questioned its role in the recent developments. Leading countries had also been vocal in raising their concerns against the fair functioning of WTO. For instance, the memories of the clamorous demurs rebuking WTO during the Trump Administration are still afresh and are a constant reminder to the unsuccessful attempts made by WTO to bring parity between the members. Even the ambitious 2001 Doha round (Doha Development Agenda) which covered a plethora of domains and really made it look at one point of time that the world is moving towards a unified economy, ended up in a failure after 14 years of negotiations.

However, today’s unprecedented situation may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for WTO as it has already been attracting scholarly debates over the issue of IP waiver. Whatever decision is taken by the world leaders on this proposal, it will be facilitated through the WTO podium. This attention is bound to increase and to stay for some time even after a decision is made in this regard. It is probable that if guided properly, the WTO platform may once again become the hub of a global negotiation by burying the resurging principles of autarky and reliving the spirit of the 1986 – 1994 Uruguay Round. WTO can utilize this opportunity to become the harbinger of all health-related negotiations and thereafter expand it to cover different dimensions such as trade relaxations post opening up of domestic lockdowns.

This sudden limelight that has been bestowed on WTO offers it an unprecedented opportunity to revive its lost glory and to rebuild its declining relevance. The fact that the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO is expected to be held from November 30, 2021 to December 03, 2021, the negotiations on IP waiver proposal are bound to get further boost. This signifies higher importance to WTO and once in a lifetime opportunity for multilateral organization to portray its credibility in executing a trade deal between different stakeholders.