WTO: Switzerland blocks the COVID-19 waiver until the end

The WTO is heading for a major political failure in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. As its 12th Ministerial Conference opens the day after tomorrow in Geneva, member states are unable to agree on India and South Africa's request to suspend intellectual property rights on vaccines, tests and anti-covid drugs. Through its systematic blocking, Switzerland is at the forefront of this multilateral failure, which offers no coherent solution for equitable access to means of fighting health crises.

Next week, the credibility of the WTO and its Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be at stake in Geneva. Among the topics on the agenda of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), which will be held from June 12 to 15, is the TRIPS waiver, named after the request for temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for the production and marketing of vaccines, tests and anti-covid drugs filed by India and South Africa in October 2020. This request was supported by a hundred countries as well as numerous international organizations and personalities, but the States hosting the large pharmaceutical companies, such as Switzerland, systematically blocked it.

If the MC12 Conference finally reaches an agreement, we will be very far from a generalized suspension of intellectual property rights, in view of the latest texts made public. The decision will at most be a reminder of existing instruments, such as compulsory licensing, which allows a State to authorize the marketing of generics despite the existence of a patent. However, other exclusive rights, such as trade secrets or the protection of registration data, are proven barriers to equitable access and technology transfer, which a compulsory license will not be able to overcome. Moreover, it will be necessary to proceed product by product, country by country, not to mention the diplomatic and commercial pressures that systematically accompany this type of approach. The only concession that could be considered a waiver is the possibility for an eligible country to re-export a vaccine produced under a compulsory license, but in a very limited way.

This text, presented as a "compromise" between the Members, is in fact imposed by the Western countries, including Switzerland. Unless there is a U-turn at MC12, it will not resolve the inequitable distribution of resources in the fight against Covid-19. First, it only covers vaccines, while access to treatments and diagnostic tests is equally inequitable due to the exclusive rights held by Pfizer, Roche and others. Secondly, it excludes many countries from the possibility of using it for commercial or geopolitical reasons, whereas WTO rules are supposed to apply everywhere, without discrimination. Finally, it creates new obstacles for eligible countries to use this mechanism, setting a dangerous precedent that will also hamper the response to future pandemics.

Such an agreement is unworthy of Western countries like Switzerland that claim to respect human rights, including the right to health. As the host country of the MC12, and as the chair of the WTO's highest decision-making body since last March, Switzerland had the necessary leverage to positively influence the final outcome. Even though it is (over)supplied with vaccines, treatments and tests, it preferred to favour the interests of the pharmaceutical companies, which will thus be able to continue to decide who receives how much, when and at what price. Covid-19 showed that the WTO did not have adequate rules to respond effectively to a global health crisis, and it did nothing to put them in place for eighteen long months.


Isolda Agazzi, Alliance Sud, Trade policy expert, isolda.agazzi@alliancesud.ch, M +41 79 434 45 60

Patrick Durisch, Health policy expert, Public Eye, patrick.durisch@publiceye.ch , M +41 21 620 03 06