Good news from the US on vaccines

Yesterday, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the US will support a temporary waiver of patent protection for coronavirus vaccines. It is good news that the US has now indicated it will take steps in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to make more vaccines available throughout the world.

Norway has worked consistently to achieve a compromise in the WTO, with the aim of increasing production and accessibility to vaccines and other products needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Norway has continued its efforts as the chair of the WTO Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council), and we will do our part to ensure the best possible outcome. A comprehensive effort on a broader front will be needed if we are to succeed in expanding vaccine production adequately. 

The original waiver proposal from South Africa and India was very comprehensive. It encompassed all countries, not just the poor countries, and it applied to vaccines, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. There was widespread disagreement on this proposal among the WTO members. As far back as in December, Norway encouraged India and South Africa to draw up a revised proposal. At the same time, we have stressed that both sides must be willing to modify their positions in order to reach agreement. In the meeting of the General Council yesterday, Norway again called on all WTO members to seek compromise. And this is precisely what is now taking place. India and South Africa have signalled that they will present a revised proposal. In other words, the proposal that has discussed previously, has in practice been taken off the table. The US has indicated its willingness to support a proposal that is more limited, largely because it will only apply to Covid-19 vaccines. We will need to assess the details of the new proposals once they have been presented, and determine the degree to which they will help to achieve the goal we are all working towards: bringing more vaccines to more countries.

The US and Norway have both pointed out that lifting patent protection is only part of the solution. US Trade Representative Tai emphasised in her statement yesterday that deliberations in the WTO on the waiver would take time, adding that the US decision would not have any immediate impact on global access to vaccines. Yesterday’s statement from the G7 ministerial meeting in London emphasised the importance of other means of scaling up production as well. WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala seeks to focus efforts on expanding vaccine production, with discussions on all the various ways to achieve this.

The US proposal could be a more specific, targeted measure to prevent patent protection from becoming a potential bottleneck. However, we must work along several different tracks to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. There are no quick solutions to this. The biggest obstacle we must overcome, as we have pointed out on multiple occasions, is how to build the know-how, capacity and infrastructure needed to facilitate vaccine production and rapid rollout of vaccines in more countries. This will require cooperation between the authorities and pharmaceutical companies. The production and distribution of vaccines is highly complex. Stringent quality control throughout the entire production chain is essential to ensure that the vaccines manufactured are safe and to prevent them from fuelling vaccine hesitancy. This is particularly the case with the mRNA vaccines. They represent a small revolution in vaccine development, and it is no small task to build production capacity without adequate collaboration between the authorities and the pharmaceutical companies that have the technology and the intellectual property rights. In addition, a long list of inputs from many countries is needed. Supply chains have to function smoothly, without any barriers to trade. It is essential to ensure that trade policy does not undermine the effort to increase production.

Norway has been involved in a range of initiatives to increase production capacity for Covid-19 vaccines and other products necessary to stop the coronavirus pandemic. Through our cooperation with the EU, the funding we have provided for Cepi and Covax, and our leadership role in the ACT-Accelerator, we have been at the forefront of international efforts to increase access to Covid-19 tools, including vaccines. We will continue all of these efforts alongside our work in the WTO.