The vaccine standoff is just one example of how the power of the WTO to forge new trade rules and agreements is increasingly being questioned. Governments scarred by the pandemic are unsure whether opening markets is still a goal worth pursuing, while protectionist trade policies often work best at home. The strained relations between key players such as the United States, China, the European Union and India are also helping to fuel an existential crisis within the 26-year-old global trade organization.
Failure to reach an agreement on vaccine patents or other long-standing disputes would raise more doubts about the WTO’s purpose, as countries increasingly enter into bilateral or regional agreements. It would also raise the question of whether the former Nigerian finance minister, after just nine months in office, is the right person to pull the organization out of its slump.
Nor have the 164 WTO members been able to complete a two-decade-old negotiation aimed at reducing harmful fishing subsidies that have helped deplete ocean stocks. And there is still no consensus on overhauling the WTO dispute settlement system, an issue that has prompted the United States to cripple the group’s appeals body by blocking the appointment of new judges. .
At stake “is the future of the multilateral trading system, if it will increase its service to the world economy,” former WTO deputy director-general Alan Wolff said this month. “If they don’t agree, it’s just another black mark.”
Since taking over as head of the WTO in February, Okonjo-Iweala has focused much of her energy on resolving the patent dispute. The fight pits a group of more than 100 developing countries led by South Africa and India, who support the widest possible waiver, against the EU, the UK and Switzerland, who argue that logistical bottlenecks rather than patent protections are the main obstacles to scaling up the vaccine. availablity.
Okonjo-Iweala said she plans to move forward with a series of meetings previously scheduled this weekend. These will involve ambassadors to the WTO based in Geneva and visiting negotiators who had arrived early.
“Delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to fill as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work entrusted to us,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden met with supporters halfway through agreeing to support a waiver of intellectual property protections for vaccines.
He reiterated this support in a statement Friday, saying the new variant showed “the importance of moving forward quickly” to increase vaccine production globally. But India and South Africa have resisted the larger package they first proposed in October 2020.
“It’s very difficult,” Okonjo-Iweala admitted on a recent visit to Washington, DC. “I’m trying to bring together members on both sides of this equation.”
For Okonjo-Iweala, there is the added dimension of proving that someone who has not been steeped in WTO rules before taking office can effectively run the organization.
Despite being the most popular among member countries of the eight candidates vying for the top WTO post last year, President Donald Trump’s trade chief Robert Lighthizer blocked her selection for more than three months, complaining that she “knows nothing” about the WTO’s main mission.
But for many others, Okonjo-Iweala’s credentials make her well suited to support the organization in the midst of a pandemic. She was the # 2 in the World Bank and holds a PhD. in Regional Development and Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From 2016 to 2020, she served as Chair of the Board of Directors of Gavi, a public-private sector alliance aimed at increasing vaccine availability in poor countries. Okonjo-Iweala, the first African woman to lead the WTO, is also one of the world’s leading development economists.
The Biden administration has expressed no uncertainty about his abilities. He quickly and enthusiastically supported his candidacy.
Still, James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a group that promotes relaxation of patent protection, said Okonjo-Iweala entered the organization with the attitude that she was the “CEO of the organization. ‘WTO’. Faced with the much more limited realities of the role after taking office, Love thinks she has experienced “a bit of a culture shock”.
At a press briefing last week, Okonjo-Iweala dismissed the suggestion that she did not have enough trade experience to lead the WTO and had miscalculated the power she would have to get countries to stand by. to agree on.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” she told reporters. “I always said the CEO, if you want to call it that, or the CEO has the soft power, and the ability to use that soft power. And we used it wisely.”
So far Okonjo-Iweala’s attempts to help countries reach a compromise on vaccine patents have failed. But it’s not for lack of trying. She brought together governments and vaccine developers to discuss the WTO’s role in vaccine equity in her first month after taking office.
His ability to bring these players to the table so quickly was the first proof of his “very good network” and his expertise as a political operator, said a Geneva-based diplomat. She continued this sensitization, as well as “targeted messages” to specific countries on the role she sees them playing in the current negotiations, added the diplomat.
Okonjo-Iweala also realized early on that the goal of producing more vaccines could begin to be solved without waivers, if the big pharmaceutical companies joined in.
“Even if you denigrate pharmaceuticals, at some point you have to work with them as well, to see how you can increase production,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
This was reflected in her so-called “third way” proposal, in which she “tried very forcefully to call for technology transfer, voluntary licensing, partnerships, including, of course, with the ‘Africa,’ said Thomas Cueni, Managing Director. from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.
Okonjo-Iweala deserves credit for some of the progress in this area, Cueni said. Although questions remain about the details of many plans, several deals have been announced by major pharmaceutical companies to increase vaccine manufacturing capacity, including plans to build mRNA factories in Senegal and Rwanda.
The WTO chief also helped spur two recent agreements between drugmakers and the Medicines Patent Pool to share licenses for coronavirus antivirals, Love said.
One of his first assignments after taking office was to tackle trade barriers to get coronavirus products to the people who needed them. This led the WTO to publish a list of bottlenecks impeding trade in critical goods, which it has kept up to date.
“When you look 10 months ago compared to now, I think a lot of those trade barriers are gone,” Cueni said, attributing pressure on countries to Okonjo-Iweala.
Yet developing countries say that does not eliminate the need for intellectual property waivers.
Without a meaningful waiver, “there can be no meaningful WTO response to the pandemic,” said Sangeeta Shashikant, legal advisor at Third World Network, which advocates on behalf of developing countries.
On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies credit strong patent protections for fueling rapid vaccine development. They also say the waiver is unnecessary due to the rapid expansion of vaccine production.
“We expect there will be 12 billion vaccines produced by the end of this year, with an additional 16 billion produced in the first half of 2022,” said Joe Damond, executive vice president of international affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, whose members include vaccine maker Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies. “This is currently what is online. So any IP waiver wouldn’t be in time to add significantly to that.”