Your newspaper has been generally supportive of the newly appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and her efforts to resolve the tricky question of intellectual property and access to Covid-related medical products, including vaccines (Opinion, March 3). The most recent council meeting of the WTO’s trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (Trips) body ended unsurprisingly in a continued stalemate.
Past directors-general of the WTO, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade before it, have aspired to be “honest brokers” in trade negotiations, famously holding “green room” meetings with the key players in order to thrash out differences. The director-general’s skill lies in inviting the right members, asking the right probing questions and teasing out the differences in order to bring members to a point where the most feasible solution emerges. It is still uphill from here to find a consensus among the entire membership but trust in the director-general’s impartiality is key to success.
There is no doubt that Okonjo-Iweala is well-intentioned and quite sincere in wanting to lead from the front in finding a realistic solution quickly to achieving equitable access to Covid-related products. But it is unfortunate that she has spoken publicly of a “third way” that would involve licensed manufacture in order to increase the supply of much-needed Covid vaccines in poorer countries.
It does not matter that her idea makes eminent sense; what matters is how many members now believe she is an honest broker. Also, is it really the role of the WTO to convene meetings with vaccine developers and manufacturers to examine the adequacy of vaccine manufacturing capacity, as is apparently being suggested by Australia, Canada and others, taking a cue from her own words?
One can only hope that she is not led astray, that she can take a page from the book of past directors-general, win the trust of all sides and begin the arduous task of building consensus for issues within her remit, leaving it to other organisations like the World Health Organization to look into the issue of global expansion of vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Former Staff Member, WTO’s Intellectual Property Division
Honorary Professor, National Law University Delhi, New Delhi, India