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WTO处于生死关头

WTO处于生死关头

David Meyer 2021年06月24日
中国是该组织需要考虑到的重要因素之一?

世界贸易组织(World Trade Organization,简称WTO)完全了解其自身正在面临的危机。

美国前总统唐纳德•特朗普破坏了WTO解决贸易争端的核心功能,而现任美国总统乔•拜登并没有清除特朗普设置的障碍。此外,全球贸易规则的公平性也引发了普遍的不满情绪。

在尼日利亚人恩戈齐•奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉的领导下,这个拥有164个成员的国际组织正在面临许多亟待解决的问题。

然而,最紧迫的危机是:各国之间的新冠疫苗争夺战,以及为了尽快结束新冠肺炎疫情,是否应该暂时取消对疫苗专利以及其他知识产权的保护。

印度和南非在去年最先主张新冠疫苗专利豁免。有些支持这种立场的人认为,WTO的未来取决于它接下来对此所做出的决定。

南非驻WTO大使索勒瓦•姆伦比-彼得说:“WTO的信誉取决于它能否在这个问题上取得有意义的结果,是否能够真正在不同地区增加疫苗产量。”

“最后的致命一击”

位于日内瓦的WTO并没有任何实际权力,它只是各国就贸易问题做出重大决策的一个框架,并且通常是以协商的方式。WTO应该作为解决争端的平台,因为所有成员国都同意相同的规则。其中最重要的规则之一是《与贸易有关的知识产权协定》(简称TRIPS),该协定在1995年WTO成立时正式生效。

这个协定是创立WTO的基础,其中规定了在特殊情况下豁免专利和知识产权的规则,而且以前确实曾经发生过这种情况:2003年,WTO成员国同意豁免TRIPS中的义务。这些义务曾经导致缺乏生产能力的发展中国家无法进口廉价仿制药品。(该豁免在2017年成为永久性豁免。)

不过对WTO而言,共识是关键。

如果各成员国未能就某项豁免达成共识,WTO成员国就可以以75%的绝对多数通过豁免提案,但这将引发前所未有的动荡。

如果WTO支持新冠疫苗专利豁免,则意味着其要面对欧盟(尤其是德国)、加拿大和英国等国的反对。

美国的立场最近从反对变成了支持。法国也持同样立场。

支持者认为,虽然这是各国之间的争议,但最终结果将对整个WTO产生影响。

公民全球贸易观察(一个关注WTO和贸易协定的美国倡议组织)的创始人洛里•沃勒克称:“面对一个世纪以来全人类面临的最严峻的挑战之一,WTO的功能反而变成了障碍,而不是提供解决方案。我认为这将是对它最后的致命一击。”

“如果TRIPS豁免成功通过,人们把WTO视为一种拯救生命和生计的解决方案,它就能够树立良好的信誉,形成强大的势头,可以着手解决严重的结构性问题。”

目前,WTO存在的问题数不胜数。

改革迫在眉睫

首当其冲的是负责处理各成员国之间贸易争端的WTO上诉机构。该机构是国际贸易体系的一个关键部分,通常配有七名法官,但由于其不利于美国的决定激怒了特朗普,在有法官退休之后,美国方面一直阻止上诉机构任命新法官。由于法官人数不足,该机构在2019年底彻底停摆。

有人曾经希望拜登上任之后能够扭转这种局面,但在今年早些时候,美国拒绝了欧洲提出的填补法官职位空缺的提案,令人大失所望。

拜登政府表示:“美国对WTO上诉机构依旧有系统性担忧。WTO成员国都知道,在过去的16年多时间里,历任美国政府都曾经提出并解释过这种担忧。”

现任美国贸易代表戴琪在2月的确认听证会上重申了美国政府的担忧。她表示,WTO的上诉机构“在多起案件中存在越权裁决、对WTO协定解释不当等情况,损害了美国和其他WTO成员国的利益”,并指控WTO超期裁决贸易终端。

戴琪指出:“WTO亟需改革,以确保导致这些问题出现的根本原因得以消除。”

香港中文大学的经济法教授布莱恩•默丘里奥反对疫苗专利豁免。他说:“虽然美国一直在与WTO接触,但没有迹象表明美国会在短期内同意对上诉机构法官的任命。这不是好消息。在WTO的治理方面,这比支持知识产权豁免的谈判更加重要。”

不止美国希望看到WTO改革。在2月发布的一份重要政策文件中,欧盟表示,推动WTO规则现代化改革的谈判以失败告终,争端解决制度停摆,对各国贸易政策的监督无效。

于2001年加入WTO的中国也是WTO需要考虑到的重要因素之一。

默丘里奥称:“中国当前的表现较为强势,所以对于其认为不符合国家利益的改革措施,它不会被迫接受。”

沃勒克承认,即使WTO成功通过了对新冠疫苗和医疗用品的TRIPS专利豁免,这些问题也不会消失。她补充说:“但是,WTO一旦拥有了成为解决方案而不是障碍的经验,就可以大幅提高各国解决这些挑战的意愿和诚意。”

沃勒克提到了亚太经合组织贸易部长在本月初发布的一份联合声明。声明呼吁紧急讨论疫苗专利豁免问题。

其中有关WTO改革的部分写道:“WTO必须证明全球贸易规则有助于解决新冠肺炎疫情这场人类大灾难,并推动经济的复苏。”

奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉的角色

2021年年初,随着美国特朗普政府的下台,奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉成功接任WTO总干事,她的上任没有受到任何阻挠。她目前正在致力于解决诸多问题,正是这些问题导致了她的前任(巴西人罗伯托•阿泽维多)的离职。

世界贸易组织总干事恩戈齐•奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉曾经表示,针对新冠疫苗专利豁免问题,“我们必须立即行动起来,邀请各成员国的大使坐上谈判桌进行协商。”图片来源:Dursun Aydemir—Anadolu/Bloomberg/Getty Images

上周早些时候,美国和欧盟就波音和空中客车飞机补贴的长期贸易争端达成五年休战协议,当时奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉曾经发布推文称:“只要有政治意愿,即使最棘手的问题也能够解决。”

然而,默丘里奥却怀疑她的管理能力能否对WTO的改革进程产生太大影响。

他说:“她在上任时曾经表示,各国代表团应该相互交流。但在最近的一次总干事会议上,各国代表只是在阅读事先准备的报告,这被称为是史上最糟糕的一次会议。

另一方面,恩戈齐与前任不同,她会积极寻找问题的解决方案。如果调解人的角色受到欢迎,她或许不仅可以促成谈判,还将对能否最终达成协议产生影响。”

姆伦比-彼得和沃勒克都认为WTO的信誉取决于疫苗专利豁免问题。对于这种观点,WTO秘书处发言人拒绝发表意见,而是提到了奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉在5月的一次讲话。

她在讲话中称,WTO能够帮助解决疫苗供应链的监督和透明,帮助制造商扩大生产,建立一个地理上更多元化的生产基地。

她在讲话中还指出,各成员国“必须解决与技术转让、专有知识和知识产权有关的问题”,包括专利豁免提案。她说:“我们必须现在行动起来,邀请各国驻WTO大使坐上谈判桌进行协商。”

“议程驱动”

大型制药公司在这个问题上的立场是,WTO成员国不需要支持专利豁免,只要可以推动取消对医疗用品的出口限制即可。

位于日内瓦的国际药品制造商协会联合会的总干事托马斯•库尼称:“在消除影响全球疫苗、治疗药物和诊断工具的生产分配的贸易壁垒方面,WTO依旧大有可为。”

“呼吁疫苗专利豁免背后都是出于政治考虑,是为了哗众取宠,在短期内不会增加疫苗产量,反而有可能毁掉帮助我们快速应对新冠肺炎疫情的框架。”

默丘里奥也认为姆伦比-彼得和沃勒克的建议都是议程驱动。

他说:“我认为,主张WTO的信誉取决于TRIPS专利豁免的结果这种观点过于夸张。对某个话题感兴趣的人都会用这样的话术,比如环保主义者会说WTO的信誉取决于渔业补贴的结果,科技界人士会说信誉取决于电子商务和服务谈判,而实业家们也会提到同样的补贴问题。”

然而,沃勒克坚持认为专利豁免的结果不会改变WTO的制度,因为其制度已经临时暂停了知识产权保护。她说:“这不会对TRIPS协定有任何改变。”

姆伦比-彼得表示:“WTO是一个论坛,它有应对当前疫情的相关政策工具,可以通过解决知识产权壁垒,在不同地区增加疫苗产量。”

国际药品制造商协会联合会的总干事库尼指出,“专利豁免在短期内对缓解新冠肺炎疫情毫无帮助”,因为贸易壁垒和原材料短缺才是根本问题。

新建新冠疫苗生产设施确实需要技术转让,然而值得注意的是,在世界卫生组织于去年建立的“新冠肺炎技术获取资源库”中,疫苗公司没有做出任何贡献。该计划的目的是希望为疫苗公司提供一种途径,去自愿帮助愿意参与疫苗生产的其他制造商。

沃勒克表示,大量现有的产能没有得到充分的利用。

最近,位于以色列的梯瓦制药发布声明,抱怨疫苗公司拒绝使用其主动提供的产能。许多公司也有类似的不满。对此,沃勒克声称通过疫苗专利豁免,以及为进一步扩大产能进行注资,可以使疫苗产量快速增加数十亿剂。

沃勒克表示:“你的首要任务是先踏上那条路,但随后你就会看见一道紧锁的大门。”

南非驻WTO大使姆伦比-彼得说:“当前的新冠肺炎疫情并未减缓,病毒变异和变种风险可能使医疗产品和医疗技术的疗效受到影响,许多人的生命危在旦夕,我们希望这一切能够让WTO各成员国认识到情况的紧迫性。”(财富中文网)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

世界贸易组织(World Trade Organization,简称WTO)完全了解其自身正在面临的危机。

美国前总统唐纳德•特朗普破坏了WTO解决贸易争端的核心功能,而现任美国总统乔•拜登并没有清除特朗普设置的障碍。此外,全球贸易规则的公平性也引发了普遍的不满情绪。

在尼日利亚人恩戈齐•奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉的领导下,这个拥有164个会员国的国际组织正在面临许多亟待解决的问题。

然而,最紧迫的危机是:各国之间的新冠疫苗争夺战,以及为了尽快结束新冠肺炎疫情,是否应该暂时取消对疫苗专利以及其他知识产权的保护。

印度和南非在去年最先主张新冠疫苗专利豁免。有些支持这种立场的人认为,WTO的未来取决于它接下来对此所做出的决定。

南非驻WTO大使索勒瓦•姆伦比-彼得说:“WTO的信誉取决于它能否在这个问题上取得有意义的结果,是否能够真正在不同地区增加疫苗产量。”

“最后的致命一击”

位于日内瓦的WTO并没有任何实际权力,它只是各国就贸易问题做出重大决策的一个框架,并且通常是以协商的方式。WTO应该作为解决争端的平台,因为所有成员国都同意相同的规则。其中最重要的规则之一是《与贸易有关的知识产权协定》(简称TRIPS),该协定在1995年WTO成立时正式生效。

这个协定是创立WTO的基础,其中规定了在特殊情况下豁免专利和知识产权的规则,而且以前确实曾经发生过这种情况:2003年,WTO成员国同意豁免TRIPS中的义务。这些义务曾经导致缺乏生产能力的发展中国家无法进口廉价仿制药品。(该豁免在2017年成为永久性豁免。)

不过对WTO而言,共识是关键。

如果各成员国未能就某项豁免达成共识,WTO成员国就可以以75%的绝对多数通过豁免提案,但这将引发前所未有的动荡。

如果WTO支持新冠疫苗专利豁免,则意味着其要面对欧盟(尤其是德国)、加拿大和英国等国的反对。

美国的立场最近从反对变成了支持。法国也持同样立场。

支持者认为,虽然这是各国之间的争议,但最终结果将对整个WTO产生影响。

公民全球贸易观察(一个关注WTO和贸易协定的美国倡议组织)的创始人洛里•沃勒克称:“面对一个世纪以来全人类面临的最严峻的挑战之一,WTO的功能反而变成了障碍,而不是提供解决方案。我认为这将是对它最后的致命一击。”

“如果TRIPS豁免成功通过,人们把WTO视为一种拯救生命和生计的解决方案,它就能够树立良好的信誉,形成强大的势头,可以着手解决严重的结构性问题。”

目前,WTO存在的问题数不胜数。

改革迫在眉睫

首当其冲的是WTO的上诉机构,负责处理各成员国之间的贸易争端。

WTO的上诉机构是国际贸易体系的核心,通常配有七名法官,但在有法官退休之后,对美国不利的决定激怒了特朗普,于是他一直阻止上诉机构任命新法官。按照规定,上诉机构处理成员国的上诉需要至少有三名法官,但在2019年年底,有两位法官任期届满,导致其法官人数不足,因此该机构彻底停摆。

有人曾经希望拜登上任之后能够扭转这种局面,但在今年早些时候,美国拒绝了欧洲提出的填补法官职位空缺的提案,令人大失所望。

拜登政府表示:“美国对WTO上诉机构依旧有系统性担忧。WTO成员国都知道,在过去的16年多时间里,历任美国政府都曾经提出并解释过这种担忧。”

现任美国贸易代表戴琪在2月的确认听证会上重申了美国政府的担忧。她表示,WTO的上诉机构“在多起案件中存在越权裁决、对WTO协定解释不当等情况,损害了美国和其他WTO成员国的利益”,并指控WTO超期裁决贸易终端。

戴琪指出:“WTO亟需改革,以确保导致这些问题出现的根本原因得以消除。”

香港中文大学的经济法教授布莱恩•默丘里奥反对疫苗专利豁免。他说:“虽然美国一直在与WTO接触,但没有迹象表明美国会在短期内同意对上诉机构法官的任命。这不是好消息。在WTO的治理方面,这比支持知识产权豁免的谈判更加重要。”

不止美国希望看到WTO改革。在2月发布的一份重要政策文件中,欧盟表示,推动WTO规则现代化改革的谈判以失败告终,争端解决制度停摆,对各国贸易政策的监督无效。

于2001年加入WTO的中国也是WTO需要考虑到的重要因素之一。

默丘里奥称:“中国当前的表现较为强势,所以对于其认为不符合国家利益的改革措施,它不会被迫接受。”

沃勒克承认,即使WTO成功通过了对新冠疫苗和医疗用品的TRIPS专利豁免,这些问题也不会消失。她补充说:“但是,WTO一旦拥有了成为解决方案而不是障碍的经验,就可以大幅提高各国解决这些挑战的意愿和诚意。”

沃勒克提到了亚太经合组织贸易部长在本月初发布的一份联合声明。声明呼吁紧急讨论疫苗专利豁免问题。

其中有关WTO改革的部分写道:“WTO必须证明全球贸易规则有助于解决新冠肺炎疫情这场人类大灾难,并推动经济的复苏。”

奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉的角色

2021年年初,随着美国特朗普政府的下台,奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉成功接任WTO总干事,她的上任没有受到任何阻挠。她目前正在致力于解决诸多问题,正是这些问题导致了她的前任(巴西人罗伯托•阿泽维多)的离职。

上周早些时候,美国和欧盟就波音和空中客车飞机补贴的长期贸易争端达成五年休战协议,当时奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉曾经发布推文称:“只要有政治意愿,即使最棘手的问题也能够解决。”

然而,默丘里奥却怀疑她的管理能力能否对WTO的改革进程产生太大影响。

他说:“她在上任时曾经表示,各国代表团应该相互交流。但在最近的一次总干事会议上,各国代表只是在阅读事先准备的报告,这被称为是史上最糟糕的一次会议。

另一方面,恩戈齐与前任不同,她会积极寻找问题的解决方案。如果调解人的角色受到欢迎,她或许不仅可以促成谈判,还将对能否最终达成协议产生影响。”

姆伦比-彼得和沃勒克都认为WTO的信誉取决于疫苗专利豁免问题。对于这种观点,WTO秘书处发言人拒绝发表意见,而是提到了奥孔乔-伊韦阿拉在5月的一次讲话。

她在讲话中称,WTO能够帮助解决疫苗供应链的监督和透明,帮助制造商扩大生产,建立一个地理上更多元化的生产基地。

她在讲话中还指出,各成员国“必须解决与技术转让、专有知识和知识产权有关的问题”,包括专利豁免提案。她说:“我们必须现在行动起来,邀请各国驻WTO大使坐上谈判桌进行协商。”

“议程驱动”

大型制药公司在这个问题上的立场是,WTO成员国不需要支持专利豁免,只要可以推动取消对医疗用品的出口限制即可。

位于日内瓦的国际药品制造商协会联合会的总干事托马斯•库尼称:“在消除影响全球疫苗、治疗药物和诊断工具的生产分配的贸易壁垒方面,WTO依旧大有可为。”

“呼吁疫苗专利豁免背后都是出于政治考虑,是为了哗众取宠,在短期内不会增加疫苗产量,反而有可能毁掉帮助我们快速应对新冠肺炎疫情的框架。”

默丘里奥也认为姆伦比-彼得和沃勒克的建议都是议程驱动。

他说:“我认为,主张WTO的信誉取决于TRIPS专利豁免的结果这种观点过于夸张。对某个话题感兴趣的人都会用这样的话术,比如环保主义者会说WTO的信誉取决于渔业补贴的结果,科技界人士会说信誉取决于电子商务和服务谈判,而实业家们也会提到同样的补贴问题。”

然而,沃勒克坚持认为专利豁免的结果不会改变WTO的制度,因为其制度已经临时暂停了知识产权保护。她说:“这不会对TRIPS协定有任何改变。”

姆伦比-彼得表示:“WTO是一个论坛,它有应对当前疫情的相关政策工具,可以通过解决知识产权壁垒,在不同地区增加疫苗产量。”

国际药品制造商协会联合会的总干事库尼指出,“专利豁免在短期内对缓解新冠肺炎疫情毫无帮助”,因为贸易壁垒和原材料短缺才是根本问题。

新建新冠疫苗生产设施确实需要技术转让,然而值得注意的是,在世界卫生组织于去年建立的“新冠肺炎技术获取资源库”中,疫苗公司没有做出任何贡献。该计划的目的是希望为疫苗公司提供一种途径,去自愿帮助愿意参与疫苗生产的其他制造商。

沃勒克表示,大量现有的产能没有得到充分的利用。

最近,位于以色列的梯瓦制药发布声明,抱怨疫苗公司拒绝使用其主动提供的产能。许多公司也有类似的不满。对此,沃勒克声称通过疫苗专利豁免,以及为进一步扩大产能进行注资,可以使疫苗产量快速增加数十亿剂。

沃勒克表示:“你的首要任务是先踏上那条路,但随后你就会看见一道紧锁的大门。”

南非驻WTO大使姆伦比-彼得说:“当前的新冠肺炎疫情并未减缓,病毒变异和变种风险可能使医疗产品和医疗技术的疗效受到影响,许多人的生命危在旦夕,我们希望这一切能够让WTO各成员国认识到情况的紧迫性。”(财富中文网)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

The World Trade Organization knows all about crises. Former U.S. President Donald Trump threw a wrench into its core function of resolving trade disputes—a blocker that President Joe Biden has not yet removed—and there is widespread dissatisfaction over the fairness of the global trade rulebook. The 164-country organization, under the fresh leadership of Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has a lot to fix.

However, one crisis is more pressing than the others: the battle over COVID-19 vaccines, and whether the protection of their patents and other intellectual property should be temporarily lifted to boost production and end the pandemic sooner rather than later.

According to some of those pushing for the waiver—which was originally proposed last year by India and South Africa—the WTO's future rests on what happens next.

"The credibility of the WTO will depend on its ability to find a meaningful outcome on this issue that truly ramps-up and diversifies production," says Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, South Africa's ambassador to the WTO.

"Final nail in the coffin"

The Geneva-based WTO isn't an organization with power, as such—it's a framework within which countries make big decisions about trade, generally by consensus. It's supposed to be the forum where disputes get settled, because all its members have signed up to the same rules. And one of its most important rulebooks is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, which sprang to life alongside the WTO in 1995.

The WTO's founding agreement allows for rules to be waived in exceptional circumstances, and indeed this has happened before: its members agreed in 2003 to waive TRIPS obligations that were blocking the importation of cheap, generic drugs into developing countries that lack manufacturing capacity. (That waiver was effectively made permanent in 2017.)

Consensus is the key here.

Although the failure to reach consensus on a waiver could be overcome with a 75% supermajority vote by the WTO's membership, this would be an unprecedented and seismic event. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine IP waiver, it would mean standing up to the European Union, and Germany in particular, as well as countries such as Canada and the U.K.—the U.S. recently flipped from opposing the idea of a waiver to supporting it, as did France.

It's a dispute between countries, but the result will be on the WTO as a whole, say waiver advocates.

"If, in the face of one of humanity's greatest challenges in a century, the WTO functionally becomes an obstacle as in contrast to part of the solution, I think it could be the final nail in the coffin" for the organization, says Lori Wallach, the founder of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, a U.S. campaigning group that focuses on the WTO and trade agreements.

"If the TRIPS waiver is successful, and people see the WTO as being part of the solution—saving lives and livelihoods—it could create goodwill and momentum to address what are still daunting structural problems."

Those problems are legion.

Reform needs

Top of the list is the WTO's Appellate Body, which hears appeals in members' trade disputes. It's a pivotal part of the international trade system, but Trump—incensed at decisions taken against the U.S. —blocked appointments to its seven-strong panel as judges retired. The body became completely paralyzed at the end of 2019, when two judges' terms ended and the panel no longer had the three-judge quorum it needs to rule on appeals.

Anyone who hoped the advent of the Biden administration would change matters was disappointed earlier this year when the U.S. rejected a European proposal to fill the vacancies. "The United States continues to have systemic concerns with the appellate body," it said. "As members know, the United States has raised and explained its systemic concerns for more than 16 years and across multiple U.S. administrations."

At her confirmation hearing in February, current U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai reiterated those concerns—she said the appellate body had "overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members," and accused it of dragging its heels in settling disputes.

"Reforms are needed to ensure that the underlying causes of such problems do not resurface," Tai said.

"While the U.S. [has] been engaging [with the WTO] it hasn't indicated it would move quickly on allowing appointments to the Appellate Body," says Bryan Mercurio, an economic-law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who opposes the vaccine waiver. "This is not a good sign. In terms of WTO governance, it's a much more important step than supporting negotiations on an [intellectual property] waiver."

It's not just the U.S. that wants to see reform at the WTO. In a major policy document published in February, the EU said negotiations had failed to modernize the organization's rules, the dispute-resolution system was broken, the monitoring of countries' trade policies was ineffective.

China is one of the key problems here. It became a WTO member in 2001.

"China is operating from what it sees as a position of strength, so it will not be bullied into agreeing to changes which it sees as not in its interests," says Mercurio.

All these problems won't go away if the WTO manages to come up with a TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies, Wallach concedes. "But," she adds, "the will and the good faith to tackle these challenges is increased enormously if the WTO has the experience of being part of the solution, not just an obstacle."

Wallach points to a statement released earlier this month by Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade ministers, which called for urgent discussions on the waiver. "The WTO must demonstrate that global trade rules can help address the human catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate the recovery," the statement read in its section about WTO reform.

Okonjo-Iweala's role

The WTO's new director general, whose route to the top was unblocked in early 2021 with the demise of the Trump administration, is certainly keen to fix the problems that contributed to the early departure of her predecessor, Brazil's Robert Azevedo.

Earlier last week, when the U.S. and EU agreed a five-year ceasefire in a long-running dispute over Boeing and Airbus aircraft subsidies, Okonjo-Iweala tweeted: "With political will, we can solve even the most intractable problems."

However, Mercurio is skeptical about her stewardship having much of an effect on the WTO's reform process.

"Upon taking [over she] stated it was time for delegations to speak to each other and not simply past each other, but at the recent General Counsel meeting delegations simply read prepared statements in what some have described as the worst meeting ever," he says.

"On the other hand, Ngozi is very much someone who will actively seek solutions to problems, and in this way different to her predecessor. If the role of mediator is welcomed, she could have an impact not in starting discussions but in getting deals over the finish line."

A spokesperson for the WTO Secretariat declined to offer comment on Mlumbi-Peter and Wallach's suggestions that the organization's credibility rests on the vaccine patent waiver issue, but pointed to a May speech in which Okonjo-Iweala said the WTO could help tackle vaccine supply chain monitoring and transparency, helping manufacturers scale up production, and creating a more geographically diversified manufacturing base.

In her speech, the WTO chief also said members "must address issues related to technology transfer, knowhow and intellectual property," including the waiver proposal. "We must act now to get all our ambassadors to the table to negotiate a text," she said.

"Agenda driven"

Big Pharma's stance on the issue is that WTO members can help the effort without backing a waiver, but instead by pushing for the lifting of export restrictions on medical goods.

"The WTO still has much concrete work to do to remove trade barriers that are hurting manufacture and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics globally," says Thomas Cueni, director general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA).

"The call for waiving patents is driven by a political agenda playing to the gallery and not bringing a single more vaccine short term, but could jeopardize the very framework which has helped us to respond so fast to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Mercurio also says Mlumbi-Peter and Wallach's suggestions are agenda-driven.

"I think the comments that the WTO's credibility rests on the outcome of a TRIPS waiver are overstated, in the extreme," he says. "People with an interest in every topic say it—environmentalists say the credibility rests on the outcome of fishery subsidies, tech people say the same on the e-commerce and services negotiations, and industrialists say the same regarding subsidies."

However, Wallach insists that nothing about the waiver would change the system, because the system already provides for such temporary suspensions of intellectual-property protections. "This doesn’t change a comma in the actual TRIPS agreement," she says.

"The WTO is the relevant forum and it has the relevant policy tools to respond to the current pandemic by addressing IP barriers so as to ramp-up and diversify production across the world," says Mlumbi-Peter.

IFPMA's Cueni says "taking away the patent won’t do anything short term for the current pandemic" as the real problems are trade barriers and scarcity of raw materials. There is also a clear need for technology transfers if new COVID-19 vaccine-making facilities are to come online—though it should be noted that the vaccine companies have all failed to contribute to the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which was set up last year as a way for them to voluntarily help other manufacturers join the effort.

Wallach insists a great deal of existing manufacturing capacity is going untapped. Pointing to statements that have been made by the likes of Israel's Teva Pharmaceuticals, which recently complained about vaccine companies refusing to use its offered capacity, she claims the waiver could quickly unlock a billion more doses, along with the funding for further manufacturing capacity to be built out.

"The first thing you have to do is get onto the path, and there's a locked gate," says Wallach.

"We hope given the current pandemic and the risk of mutations and variants that will affect the efficacy of the medical products and technologies, as well as the need to save people's lives, that the WTO Members will recognize the urgency of the matter," says South Africa's Mlumbi-Peter.

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