The debate on access to vaccines against Covid-19 took a new turn after the election on Monday of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as head of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She joins another strong voice in Geneva, that of the director of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who also calls for the vaccine to be available in sufficient quantities and at an affordable price for everyone. According to a tally from the University of Oxford, only 175 million people have received at least one dose against covid as of February 15 when the planet has 7.7 billion inhabitants. Three quarters of vaccinations have been carried out in just ten countries.
Barely elected, the former Nigerian minister insisted that the fight against the pandemic had to go through the WTO. It is precisely at this forum that developing countries are asking for a temporary exemption from the rules on the protection of intellectual property. Objective: mass produce and distribute vaccines and achieve collective immunity.
Dialogue of the deaf
At this stage, a dialogue of the deaf has taken place between the requesting countries and those which are home to pharmaceutical companies. The latter – Switzerland, European Union, United States, Japan – highlight the fact that research and development of drugs and vaccines require massive expenditure and that, without the protection of intellectual property guaranteeing a return on investment, there will be no innovation.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will take office on March 1 at the right time. Because, on the same day, the member states of the WTO will revert to the request for a temporary exemption concerning patents. Prior to her election, she emphatically asserted that the health of populations should come before commercial interests. But, now at the head of the WTO where decisions are taken by consensus, his room for maneuver has sharply narrowed.
The elected director of the WTO will undoubtedly realize where her limits lie. It is probably for this reason that she cited as an example the multinational AstraZeneca, whose vaccine received the green light from the WHO. Will it be a model in the fight against Covid-19? The Anglo-Swedish group has sold its know-how to several companies, notably in India, in order to produce vaccines on a large scale. And what’s more, he pledged not to make a profit on his vaccine.