Ban-Ki Moon | South Africa and India must insist on a better deal at the WTO to end the pandemic

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South Africa and India have spearheaded a courageous effort to tear down barriers; to waive intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. Photo: GCIS
South Africa and India have spearheaded a courageous effort to tear down barriers; to waive intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. Photo: GCIS

After more than a year some progress has been made around the waiver of intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments at the World Trade Organisation. However, Ban Ki-Moon writes that it is not enough, and South Africa and India must reject this deal and insist on a better one.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was clear that Covid-19 would be a historic test of global solidarity. The virus does not respect national borders. And for multilateral institutions, it should have been a shining moment, an opportunity to show the world what global cooperation can achieve. After two years, however, just one in ten people in low-income countries are vaccinated. That is a profound failure of multilateralism.

The development of Covid-19 vaccines was an incredible achievement. But wealthy nations responded with a shallow view of self-interest, hoarding the world’s then-limited supply for themselves. They ignored repeated pleas from low and middle-income nations to share the vaccine recipes, guarding pharmaceutical company patents behind a global intellectual property agreement - the Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement - at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Yet we have also seen the right kind of global South-led leadership that our world needs. South Africa and India have spearheaded a courageous effort to tear down barriers; to waive intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. They have led a group of more than one hundred countries in a demand for the right to manufacture these lifesaving technologies - providing leadership to end the pandemic and save lives.

Support compromise? 

After more than a year of negotiations, some progress has been made. Wealthy countries such as Australia and the United States have agreed that a waiver is necessary. And finally, last week, the European Union recognised that intellectual property rules are a barrier to accessing vaccines and treatments, proposing a compromise to end the WTO impasse.

A decision must now be made by South Africa and India whether to support the compromise. This is arguably the world’s most important multilateral decision concerning ending the pandemic. In the view of experts across the globe, and my own view, South Africa and India should not agree to this without significant changes to the text. 

It is too narrow in scope, excluding certain countries and covering only vaccines, ignoring the urgent need for other coronavirus treatments. Crucially, the compromise addresses only patents, not other intellectual property barriers like trade secrets which are essential for the manufacture of vaccines. 

READ | ANALYSIS: TRIPS waiver - There's more to the story than vaccine patents

Worse still, rather than smooth the path for low and middle-income countries to begin manufacturing, it adds even greater restrictions. It would require the near-impossible task of identifying and listing every patent in a vaccine, many of which are not even in the public domain. And it would even add further restrictions to the use of existing flexibilities in the WTO TRIPS agreement to produce vital generic medicines. 

In short, it bears little resemblance to the practical and comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rules South Africa and India have proposed - and that leaders and experts across the world supported, including the Club de Madrid group of former world leaders that I am part of.

Barley a waiver at all

In fact, it is barely a waiver at all, with elements of the intellectual property agreement actively reinforced. The result is a compromise that will do little to improve access to vaccines and treatments.

The WTO’s failure to agree on a response to the Covid-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented risk to its reputation. Indeed, it threatens to undermine trust in multilateral institutions. And, as a result, South Africa and India will come under tremendous pressure to accept the proposed EU-led compromise in the coming days. 

READ | SA, India, EU and US have plan for Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver. Pharma groups are not happy

Stemming from my experience on the Paris Climate Accords, I personally recognise the challenge of brokering multilateral agreements. But it is vital that South Africa and India’s governments reject this proposal and instead insist on the needed fundamental changes.

South Africa and India have asserted the right of the global south to be heard in world affairs. They have asserted that saving lives and ending this pandemic must come before creating pharmaceutical billionaires. They have led a global effort of solidarity, with advocates on all continents and across political boundaries demanding health justice. 

The global north is used to getting its way. But by demanding more than this inadequate compromise, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will send a powerful message that the global south will not accept half-measures when our lives are on the line. And they can build on the remarkable progress that has been made so far to work towards a genuine solution to this crisis; a full waiver of intellectual property rules on Covid-related technologies.

Lives could be saved 

The prize could be remarkable. Millions of lives could be saved. The pandemic could be brought to an end. A new lease of life could be injected into vibrant pharmaceutical sectors across the global south. We could finally deliver a people’s vaccine, made by capable manufacturers around the world, and accessible to everyone, everywhere. And we could set a precedent for the climate emergency that rich countries and their monopolies cannot withhold the technologies needed to resolve a crisis that particularly harms the global south.

South Africa and India have challenged the status quo that has left billions of people at risk from Covid-19. Their leadership will be remembered well by the history books. Now, they must reject this deal and insist on a better one. The EU and US must return to negotiations with a new resolve, to secure the right of the global south to produce Covid-related technologies. 

Only then will we restore faith in multilateralism and make meaningful progress towards ending the pandemic. 

- Ban Ki-Moon was the Eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, and is an Honorary Member of Club de Madrid.

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