Okonjo Iweala, Director-General of WTO has urged member countries to contribute to greater equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the globe.
She noted that equity in distribution can be achieved by the adoption of three fundamental approaches; lowering supply chain barriers; fully using existing production capacity; and addressing issues related to intellectual property, access and innovation.
In the Global Health Summit, an event co-hosted by the European Commission and the Italian G20 Presidency, Okonjo Iweala described equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics as “the moral and economic issue of our time.”
The event was held today on May 21, 2021, having in attendance, the G20 leaders and heads of international organizations.
Addressing participants at the summit, she said that the pandemic had made clear that “policymakers need to think of preparedness, response, and resilience as one interconnected package.”
Expatiating the three most important elements of the package, she argued 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 indicated.
Issues that need to be addressed by WTO members
Considering the WTO’s role in addressing the global vaccine scarcity, Director-General Okonjo-Iweala pointed out that 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.”
Furthermore, the second action is helping manufacturers scale up by “keeping supply lines open and matching underused capacity with unmet needs,” which Director-General 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.
More so, Director-General 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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