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British and EU resistance hobble WTO progress towards vaccine patent waiver

OPPOSITION from Britain and the EU hobbled World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks on a vaccine patent waiver today.

The WTO closed a two-day summit on intellectual property with an agreement only to begin a “text-based process” to set out proposals on how to improve vaccine access worldwide.

South Africa and India, which first proposed a patent waiver last autumn, presented a revised proposal by which intellectual property rights to Covid vaccines and treatments would be suspended for three years, allowing Third World countries to produce cheap generic vaccines to inoculate their populations.

More than 60 countries fully support their proposal, while an overwhelming majority — including UN security council members China, France, Russia and the United States — have endorsed the patent waiver principle, but a WTO official speaking anonymously said opposition from Britain, the European Union, Switzerland and South Korea prevented any agreement.

The WTO rules require consensus, meaning even a single hold-out could scupper a waiver.

The EU has sought to avoid blame by pledging donations of 100 million vaccine doses to non-EU countries this year, though these have yet to materialise and fall well short of the 350 million already provided to other countries by China. 

Covax, the World Health Organisation (WHO) body tasked with providing two billion doses to poor countries by the end of the year, says it has neither the doses nor the funds to cope.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that the gulf between vaccination rates in rich and poor countries was creating a “two-track pandemic.”

High-income countries had given out 44 per cent of the world’s jabs while low-income countries had given out 0.4 per cent, he revealed.

“The most frustrating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in months,” he said.

While three-quarters of adults in Britain, half of those in the US and a third in the EU have had at least one dose of the vaccine, only 10 per cent of Indians have and just 1.4 per cent of Africans. China’s figure is about 40 per cent.

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