A nurse holds up a vial of vaccine at a hospital in Srinagar. India has administered more than 55 million shots of Covid-19 vaccine so far. (Photo: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

NZ made the right call on supporting the vaccine waiver. Now comes the hard part

The lifting of intellectual property rights behind Covid-19 vaccines took a big step closer this month with news that the United States is throwing its support behind a waiver. But there’s still a long way to go – and New Zealand can play a role in getting hold outs in the World Trade Organization on board, writes Nina Hall.

I was sitting in the waiting room of a German pulmonologist when I read the news that New Zealand had joined the United States in supporting a patent waiver for Covid vaccines. I was waiting to get my lungs checked after contracting Covid-19 in early April. My breathing has finally returned to normal, after a month of coughing. I wasn’t hospitalised and, living in Europe, medical care is relatively easy to come by. It’s hard to compare my experience of contracting the virus with that of the thousands of Indians who cannot access either oxygen or vaccines.

The US’s decision to support a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights is a “monumental moment”, in the words of World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It signifies a massive breakthrough in discussions which were at a stalemate. India and South Africa put forward the proposal in October 2020 and gained the support of over a hundred other countries. However discussions at the WTO were blocked as the US, the European Union, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand did not support the proposal. The WTO makes decisions by consensus, so the US will now need to put pressure on its allies to follow suit. They need to get all states to support a shift from discussions to full-throttled negotiations over a text. This is the next step in the diplomatic game.

New Zealand should also pressure the remaining blockers – including the EU, Canada and Australia – to move to negotiations. New Zealand’s own position shifted dramatically within 24 hours of the US announcement. Ardern’s government had up until May 5 advocated a “third way” approach, whereby governments would ask pharmaceutical companies to offer voluntary licences of the Covid vaccine. However, public health experts and a wide range of humanitarian and development organisations have pointed out that this approach wouldn’t work given the scale, scope and speed of the pandemic. India is seeing more than 400,000 people a day infected with Covid, and the potential for more variants multiplies with every new case, as Indian health experts pointed out in February. This is a frightening scenario not just for India but the whole world.  New Zealand needs to communicate the urgency of the waiver to those countries still blocking it. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has signalled she are willing to least “discuss” the US proposal, but we need all the WTO members to actively support negotiations.

If we get to text-based negotiations then New Zealand should support an agreement that is as broad as possible. The US has only supported one element of India and South Africa’s proposal: a patent waiver for the Covid vaccine. They have not supported a broader waiver of intellectual property rights for personal protective equipment, testing equipment, or a transfer of technical know-how for vaccine manufacturing. These other elements are vital to address the epidemic globally. Avril Benoît, the head of Doctors Without Borders/MSF USA, put it clearly earlier this month: “It is crucial that this waiver not just apply to preventative vaccines, but it should also cover other medical tools for Covid-19, including treatments for people who fall ill and diagnostics to help curb the spread, as originally proposed seven months ago”.

Released last week, the independent report on Covid preparedness and response by Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also called for a waiver of intellectual property rights if states and pharmaceutical companies are unable to reach an agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfer in the next three months. The authors urged states to quickly scale up vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, Latin America and other low income countries, to prepare for Covid-19 becoming endemic.

New Zealand should play an active role in working through differences at the WTO, to ensure these negotiations are as quick as possible. Pushing for a broader agreement, beyond just vaccines, may slow down the agreement so we will need clever diplomacy. But New Zealand has a long history of leading difficult conversations at the WTO, and was until recently the chair of the WTO General Council. We all want this global pandemic to end fast; here’s an important moment we must seize.

New Zealand-born Nina Hall is assistant professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Bologna and a co-founder of New Zealand Alternative.

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