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US supports WTO waiver of Intellectual Property on COVID-19 vaccines

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In a surprise announcement by the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has announced that the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and will “actively participate in WTO negotiations to make this happen”.

The USTR said that extraordinary times and circumstances called for extraordinary measures. 

In March, European Commission trade spokesperson Miriam Garcia Ferrer told journalists that the current view of the European Union was that the problem of access to vaccines would not be resolved by waiving patent rights. 

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Garcia Ferrer said that the real problem lay in insufficient manufacturing capacity to produce the required quantities. The European Commission very much welcomed the statement of WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has said there should be a third way to broaden access to vaccines through facilitating technology transfer within the multilateral rules, to encourage research and innovation while at the same time allowing licensing agreements that helped to scale up manufacturing capacities. 

This morning European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: "We are open to discuss any other effective and pragmatic solution. In this context we are ready to assess how the US proposal could help achieve that objective."

South African/Indian proposal

WTO members recently debated the proposal submitted by South Africa and India calling for a waiver from certain provisions of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of COVID-19. Since its submission, the proposal has received further support from Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt and the African Group within the WTO. 

The proponents argue that the waiving of certain obligations under the agreement would facilitate access to affordable medical products and the scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of essential medical products, until widespread vaccination is in place and the majority of the world’s population is immune. 

However, there is a lack of consensus and divergence on what role intellectual property plays in achieving the goal of providing timely and secure access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines to all. Proponents argue that existing vaccine manufacturing capacities in the developing world remained unutilized because of IP barriers. Other delegations asked for concrete examples of where IP would pose a barrier that could not be addressed by existing TRIPS flexibilities.

The outgoing chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa, said swift action is urgently required to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. She called on members to shift gears and move towards a solution-oriented discussion.

The next regular TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for 8-9 June, but members agreed to consider additional meetings in April in order to assess potential progress on the IP waiver discussion.

COVID-19

EU vaccinates 70% of its adult population

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Today (31 August) the EU has reached a target of 70% of the adult population fully vaccinated. More than 256 million adults in the EU have now received a full vaccine course. 

The Commission already announced that it had met its target to deliver enough vaccines to vaccinate this proportion of the population at the end of July; today’s announcement confirms that these vaccines have been administered. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “The full vaccination of 70% of adults in the EU already in August is a great achievement. The EU's strategy of moving forward together is paying off and is putting Europe at the vanguard of the global fight against COVID-19.”

Given the prevalence of the more virulent Delta variant, von der Leyen is urging EU countries and its partners to continue vaccinating at a pace. 

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Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “I am very pleased that as of today we have reached our goal to vaccinate 70% of EU adults before the end of the summer. This is a collective achievement of the EU and its member states that shows what is possible when we work together with solidarity and in co-ordination. Our efforts to further increase vaccinations across the EU will continue unabated. We will continue to support in particular those states that are continuing to face challenges.”

The picture across the EU varies enormously; the good news hides significant differences between EU members, with Romania (26%) and Bulgaria (17%) having very low rates of vaccination. Ireland, which has a very high rate of vaccination, has been able to purchase vaccines from Romania, despite its low rate of vaccination. 

Council removes 5 countries and one entity/territorial authority travel restrictions list 

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The Council has updated the list of countries, special administrative regions and other entities and territorial authorities for which travel restrictions should be lifted. In particular, Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and the United States of America were removed from the list.

Non-essential travel to the EU from countries or entities is subject to temporary travel restriction. Member states can lift the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU for fully vaccinated travellers.

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Ensuring smooth air travel while checking EU Digital COVID Certificates: New guidelines for member states

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Following the launch of the EU Digital COVID Certificate on 1 July, the European Commission has issued guidelines for EU member states on the best ways to check them before travel, ensuring the smoothest possible experience for air passengers and staff alike. The non-mandatory EU Digital COVID Certificate provides either proof of vaccination, shows if a person holds a negative SARS-COV-2 test result, or has recovered from COVID-19. Therefore, the EU Digital COVID Certificate is essential to support the re-opening of safe travel.

As passenger numbers will rise over the summer, an increased number of Certificates will need to be checked. The airline sector is particularly concerned by this since, in July for example, air traffic is expected to reach more than 60% of 2019 levels, and will rise thereafter. Currently, how and how often passenger's Certificates are checked, depends on the holder's departure, transit and arrival points.

A better-coordinated approach would help avoid congestion at airports and unnecessary stress for passengers and staff. Transport CommissionerAdina Vălean said: “Reaping the full benefits of the EU Digital COVID Certificate requires the harmonization of the verification protocol. Cooperating for a ‘one-stop' system to check the certificates makes for a seamless travel experience for the passengers across the Union.”

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To avoid duplication, i.e. checks by more than one actor (airline operators, public authorities etc.), the Commission recommends a ‘one-stop' verification process prior to departure, involving co-ordination between authorities, airports and airlines. Moreover, EU member states should ensure that the verification is carried out as early as possible and preferably before the passenger arrives at the departure airport. This should ensure smoother travel and less burden for all involved.

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COVID-19

EU agrees to recognize Swiss COVID certificates

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Today (8 July) the European Commission adopted a decision recognizing Swiss COVID-19 certificates as equivalent to the EU Digital COVID Certificate. This should considerably ease travel between Switzerland and its neighbours.

Switzerland is the first country from outside the 30 countries of the EU and EEA area, to be connected to the EU’s system. The Swiss COVID certificates will be accepted in the EU under the same conditions as the EU Digital COVID Certificate. Swiss nationals, EU citizens, and third-country nationals legally staying or residing in Switzerland will be able to travel inside the EU under the same conditions as holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate. 

Justice Commissioner, Didier Reynders, said: “I warmly welcome that the Swiss authorities have decided to implement a system based on the EU Digital COVID Certificate. This will allow EU citizens and Swiss nationals to travel safely and more freely this summer.” 

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Switzerland shall be connected to the EU Digital COVID Certificate trust framework.

Talks are still ongoing with the UK and other third countries.

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