The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has joined over 130 international civil society organizations in writing a letter to members countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO), urging them to postpone the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), set to take place in Geneva beginning November 30, due to rising Covid-19 cases in Europe and the failure of WTO members to agree to remove intellectual property barriers to an equitable and rapid pandemic recovery.
A handful of powerful WTO members, led by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Norway, continue to block a WTO waiver for Covid-related intellectual property rights under the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that could ensure access to treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines for all. The letter calls on governments to immediately agree to the waiver, for which a ministerial meeting is not necessary, as waivers are agreed by meetings of the General Council of the WTO, which meets regularly in Geneva.
Covid-19 has exposed the WTO’s systemic priority of profits over people through the monopolies that are guaranteed to brand-name pharmaceutical companies under TRIPS. As the letter points out, these inequities are compounded by the impacts of Covid-19 on the ability of ministers and officials, especially from the Global South, to attend and participate fully, effectively and safely in a conference where their fundamental interests are at stake.
Some Ministers from poorly vaccinated countries, or those isolated from international travel such as the Pacific Islands, may simply be unable to travel; Switzerland’s rules on indoor gatherings exclude some forms of vaccination and require onerous and impractical testing requirements. The health risks, costs and quarantine requirements add to the burden, especially for poor countries.
Instead of addressing these urgent crises, a number of WTO members, including Canada, are pushing their hyperglobalisation agenda even further in the name of an alleged Covid-19 recovery package. The Canada-backed Trade and Health Initiative, for example, and the “Walker process” negotiations on a WTO pandemic plan do not include anything on the TRIPS waiver. Not surprisingly, these proposals are supported by the corporate beneficiaries of the intellectual property monopolies.
“The WTO is attempting to hold a meeting under conditions of vaccine apartheid, without having first resolved how its own rules contribute to global vaccine inequality by holding back sufficient production of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Holding a ministerial conference in these circumstances is unconscionable. Our governments must agree on a waiver text as a first priority, then worry about when to reconvene for another ministerial," says Stuart Trew, director of the CCPA's Trade and Investment Research Project.
Non-government organisations that provide essential support for delegations have been denied space in the main venue, putting them out of reach of many delegations. To proceed with a ministerial conference under these circumstances would further erode the WTO’s legitimacy, and undermine the credibility of the new Director-General. The letter calls on WTO members to postpone the ministerial conference and direct all efforts to reaching an urgent agreement on the TRIPS waiver.