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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. 

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

Mainstream media risks becoming a threat to public health

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In recent weeks the controversial claim that the pandemic might have leaked from a Chinese laboratory - once dismissed by many as a fringe conspiracy theory - has been gaining traction. Now, US President Joe Biden has announced an urgent investigation that will look into the theory as a possible origin of the disease, writes Henry St.George.

Suspicion first arose in early 2020 for obvious reasons, the virus having emerged in the same Chinese city as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which has been studying coronaviruses in bats for over a decade. The laboratory is located just a few kilometres from the Huanan wet market where the first cluster of infections emerged in Wuhan.

Despite the glaring coincidence, many in the media and politics dismissed the idea outright as a conspiracy theory and refused to consider it seriously throughout the past year. But this week it has emerged that a report prepared in May 2020 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had concluded that the hypothesis claiming the virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan was plausible and deserved further investigation.

So why was the Lab Leak Theory overwhelmingly dismissed from the get go? There is no question that from the mainstream media’s perspective the idea was tarnished by association with President Donald Trump. Granted, skepticism of the President’s claims surrounding any given aspect of the pandemic would have been warranted at almost any stage. To put it euphemistically, Trump had shown himself to be something of an unreliable narrator.

During the course of the pandemic Trump dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 repeatedly, pushed unproven, potentially dangerous remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and even suggested at one memorable press briefing that injecting bleach might help.

Journalists also reasonably feared similarities with the narrative of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whereby vast threats were cited and assumptions granted to an antagonistic theory with too little evidence to back it up.

However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a general animus felt towards Trump by large swathes of the media brought about a large-scale dereliction of duty and failure to uphold objective standards of journalism as well as science. In reality the Lab Leak was never a conspiracy theory but a valid hypothesis all along.

Suggestions to the contrary by anti-establishment figures in China were also summarily quashed. As early as September 2020, the ‘Rule of Law Foundation’, connected with prominent Chinese dissident Miles Kwok, appeared on the title page a study that alleged the coronavirus was an artificial pathogen. Mr. Kwok’s long-standing opposition to the CCP was sufficient to ensure the idea was not taken seriously.

Under the pretense that they were combatting misinformation, the social media monopolies even censored posts about the lab-leak hypothesis. Only now – after almost every major media outlet as well as the British and American security services have confirmed that it is a feasible possibility – have they been forced to backtrack.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts,” a Facebook spokesman said, “we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps.” In other words, Facebook now believes that its censorship of millions of posts in the preceding months had been in error.

The consequences of the idea not having been taken seriously are profound. There is evidence that the lab in question may have been conducting what is called “gain of function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent as part of scientific research.

As such, if the lab theory is in fact true, the world has been deliberately kept in the dark about the genetic origins of a virus that has killed over 3.7m people to date. Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if the key properties of the virus and its propensity to mutate had been understood sooner and better.

The cultural ramifications of such a discovery cannot be overstated. If the hypothesis is true - the realization will soon set in that the world’s fundamental mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, but not enough scrutiny of mainstream media and too much censorship on Facebook. Our main failure will have been the inability to think critically and acknowledge that there is no such thing as absolute expertise.

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COVID-19: ‘If voluntary licensing fails, compulsory licensing has to be a legitimate tool’ von der Leyen

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MEPs will vote on whether the EU should ask the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Parliament will vote on a resolution tomorrow to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents.

During the May plenary session, the European Parliament called on the Commission to ask the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, an initiative proposed by South Africa and India and seemingly supported more recently by the new Biden administration in the US. 

Opinion among MEPs is sharply divided with some calling for a waiver, while others argue that it could be counterproductive and is a “false good idea” that would not speed up the provision of vaccines and would harm innovation. Instead, they argued the Commission should push for voluntary licensing alongside knowledge- and technology-sharing as well as ramping up production facilities in, among other regions, Africa.

On the G20 Global Health Summit that was recently convened by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and von derl Leyen. Von der Leyen outlined the three main points made in the resulting declaration, she said: “First of all, [the G20] committed to boosting production capacity in low and middle income countries. Then, of course, the second topic tackling those bottlenecks in the supply chains, for the seamless flow of vaccines and components. Finally,  we committed to investing in a global surveillance and early warning system.” 

On the TRIPS waiver Ursula von der Leyen said: “The question of the TRIPS waiver has been raised recently, we said we are open for discussions. Now just four weeks later, we have put forward a new global trade initiative at the WTO aiming to deliver more equitable access to vaccines and therapeutics… I think intellectual property has to be protected, protected, because it is the idea behind the breakthrough. And it retains the incentives for innovation in research and development. And of course, voluntary licenses are the most effective way to facilitate expanding production. 

“At the G20 Global Health summit reaffirmed this assessment, however, and it’s a big however, in a global emergency like this, like this pandemic, if voluntary licensing fails, compulsory licensing has to be a legitimate tool to scale up production. And this is why together with WTO, we want to clarify and simplify the use of compulsory licensing in times of national emergency. We have discussed this proposal yesterday with the WTO.

“Europehas also committed one billion euro to create manufacturing hubs in different regions in Africa, with African partners and our industrial partners.”

In the previous debate MEPs on both sides criticised the US and the UK for hoarding doses to excess at a time when poorer countries have little or no access to jabs. Alone among its peers in the developed world, the EU has already exported roughly half of its production to countries in need, they added.

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EU Digital COVID Certificate adopted in record time

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MEPs are set to give their final approval to the EU Digital COVID Certificate, to facilitate intra-EU travel during the pandemic and contribute to the economic recovery. The Commission and Council have taken onboard many of the requests of the Parliament. 

The agreement with the Council was reached only two months after the initial proposal was presented by the Commission, with a view to it being in place in time for the summer holidays and to help those economies mostly deeply affected by the pandemic. 

The certificate, which will be free of charge and may be digital or paper, will prove that a holder has been vaccinated, recovered from the sickness or recently passed a negative test. A common framework will allow all EU member states to issue certificates that will be interoperable, compatible, secure and verifiable across the European Union.

The rapporter on the legislation, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar MEP, who is chair of the Civil Liberties Committee, urged member states not to impose additional travel restrictions on certificate holders - such as quarantine, self-isolation or testing - unless justified for public health reasons, and will call for the quick deployment of the system.

Once adopted by plenary, the regulations will need to be formally adopted by the Council and published in the Official Journal, before they can start applying from 1 July.

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