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WTO Meeting Pits Rich Against Poor In Fight For Vaccines

Poorer countries say intellectual property laws are exacerbating the pandemic, but wealthy countries won't budge.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Nurse Roy Trahan holds up a vial of the Covid-19 vaccine to give to healthcare workers at John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB Health) in Galveston, Texas on December 15, 2020.
Nurse Roy Trahan holds up a vial of the Covid-19 vaccine to give to healthcare workers at John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB Health) in Galveston, Texas on December 15, 2020. Mark Felix/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Trade Organization is expected to discuss vaccine access at today’s general meeting, Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Kenya, and Europe locks down.

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Rich vs. Poor at WTO General Meeting

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Trade Organization is expected to discuss vaccine access at today’s general meeting, Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Kenya, and Europe locks down.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Rich vs. Poor at WTO General Meeting

Poorer countries are bringing a fight for equal access to coronavirus vaccines to the World Trade Organization today, as rich countries like the United Kingdom and United States begin rolling out vaccines to their residents.

South Africa and India are leading a group of low- and middle-income countries calling for a waiver on intellectual property rights on products related to the pandemic—including personal protective equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines. China has also backed the measure.

Rich countries and entities such as the United States and the European Union oppose the move, claiming that IP rights are not the hurdle they are made out to be, since voluntary licensing and global facilities like COVAX can help poorer countries meet their needs effectively.

Empty shelves. High-income countries may find the issue less urgent since they have already bought up the majority of the global supply of vaccines (as well as funded their development in many cases). A New York Times analysis found that based on current purchasing agreements, the European Union could vaccinate its residents twice, Britain and the United States could do so four times over, and Canada six times over.

No silver bullet. Mustaqeem De Gama, a counsellor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO and a coauthor of today’s proposal, said the waiver is necessary to combat a broken system.

“We realize this waiver is not a silver bullet. But COVID has proven that the IP system doesn’t work. It is not designed to deal with pandemics. Hopefully, this puts us on a path to talk about how to reform the IP system to react to the needs that members have. Because this is not the only pandemic we will face,” de Gama told the Lancet. (The entire Lancet report by Ann Danaiya Usher is worth a look).

Outside support. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders supports the proposal, arguing that poorer countries won’t be able to afford vaccines otherwise. “We’re calling on all governments to urgently throw their support behind this ground-breaking proposal that puts human lives over corporate profits at this critical moment for global health,” said Sidney Wong of the organization’s Access Campaign.

A losing battle. Because the WTO works on a consensus basis, it’s likely that the South African-Indian led proposal will fail. Still, poorer countries are unlikely to forget the day when rich countries barred the door while disease raged outside among their poorer neighbors.


What We’re Following Today

Somalia cuts ties with Kenya Somalia has cut diplomatic ties with Kenya, alleging its neighbor has been meddling in its affairs without citing specifics. The move comes after Somalia expelled the Kenyan ambassador in November over suspected electoral interference in the Somali state of Jubaland.

Kenya provides 3,600 troops to an African Union-led peacekeeping force in Somalia. Their position is now in question.

Somalia was likely irritated by the recent two-day visit to Kenya of Muse Bihi Abdi, the president of the secessionist region of Somaliland, during which both Abdi and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to deepen ties.

Europe closing up. Germany enters a stricter lockdown phase today, as most shops will be forced to close and contacts are limited to one other household until Jan. 10. In the Netherlands, schools will finish their term early and a range of businesses are closed until Jan. 19.

In the United Kingdom, two leading medical journals have issued a rare joint editorial asking the British government to reverse its decision to relax restrictions over the Christmas period or risk overwhelming its hospital system.

Facebook calls out French activity. Facebook has removed dozens of accounts affiliated with the French military after it found instances of fake accounts or so-called sock puppets being used to parrot French talking points to African networks. It’s the first time Facebook has called out a Western government-affiliated entity for this kind of activity.

The accounts posed as Africans voicing support for French military action while also discussing politics in West and Central Africa. Additionally, Facebook found that the French accounts had engaged in arguments with Russian accounts also posing as Africans.


Keep an Eye On

Journalists detained in record numbers. More journalists were imprisoned for their work in 2020 than in any year on record, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the past year, 274 journalists in total have been jailed, slightly more than the previous record set in 2016.

China arrested the most journalists, 47, for the second year in a row, followed by Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The report found that the biggest spike in jailings this year were in Belarus and Ethiopia.

Hungary’s anti-LGBT policies. Hungary has continued its crusade against LGBT people by changing its constitution to effectively ban same-sex couples from adopting children. The constitutional amendment clarified the definition of the family as “based on marriage and the parent-child relation. The mother is a woman, the father a man.”

Before the change, gay couples could still adopt children if one applied as a single person. By only allowing married couples to adopt, that route is now closed.

EU’s big tech plans. The European Commission is planning to impose new regulations targeting large tech firms, with high penalties for non-compliance.

The new laws—the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act—would further constrain the kinds of data that tech platforms could harvest and push big players like Facebook and Google to move faster in removing criminal and harmful content. The new laws would impose fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s annual revenue if it fails to live up to the new standards.

Foreign Policy’s Editor in Chief, Ravi Agrawal, interviewed EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager earlier this year to discuss her plans for taking on Big Tech.

Iran’s oil exports. Iranian oil exports have roughly doubled in the past few months, despite tough U.S. sanctions, according to a number of research firms.

The Wall Street Journal reports that high-end estimates put Iranian crude exports at 1.2 million barrels a day over the fall period, up from 481,000 barrels a day in February. Buyers in China and Venezuela have facilitated the surge, which has been helped along by steep discounts offered by Tehran.


Odds and Ends

Paris municipal authorities have been issued a $110,000 fine by France’s public service ministry for hiring too many women. Anne Hidalgo, the city’s socialist mayor, hired 11 women and five men in 2018, breaching a rule that states that no one gender should represent more than 60 percent of management positions.

Hidalgo said she was filled with joy upon hearing about the fine but added that it was “obviously absurd, unfair, irresponsible and dangerous.” The rule on gender parity has been repealed since 2018, but the fine still applies retroactively.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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