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Rich vs. Poor (Again) at WTO

Months after India and South Africa made their initial proposal, the World Trade Organization has another chance to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
New Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
New Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala adjusts her face mask during a session of the WTO General Council in Geneva on March 1. Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A WTO council discusses an intellectual property waiver for vaccines, Mexico considers legalizing marijuana, and Libya’s interim government faces a confidence vote.

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WTO Mulls COVID Vaccine IP Waiver

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A WTO council discusses an intellectual property waiver for vaccines, Mexico considers legalizing marijuana, and Libya’s interim government faces a confidence vote.

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


WTO Mulls COVID Vaccine IP Waiver

The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council gathers today for a two-day meeting. Amid the bureaucracy, it’s another chance for poorer countries to advance the cause of vaccine equity.

Among the topics on the lengthy agenda is a joint Indian-South African proposal—first tabled in October—for a temporary intellectual property waiver on equipment, drugs, and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much has changed since October in the world’s ability to fight the pandemic: Multiple vaccines have proved effective and many (mostly wealthy) countries have begun rolling out mass vaccination programs. The WTO has a new director-general, too. Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began her term in February with a vow to fight vaccine nationalism.

Support for the proposal has gained momentum. The plan now counts 57 countries, mostly in Africa, as co-sponsors; 31 U.S. lawmakers back the proposal, as well as 115 of members of the European parliament.

Still, many wealthy countries—including Japan, Canada, the United States, and United Kingdom—have refused to support the deal, arguing that intellectual property barriers aren’t as big an obstacle to vaccine access as manufacturing capacity.

An existential threat. Critics say wealthy countries are merely shielding powerful pharmaceutical companies from a potential loss of earnings, despite those same countries’ governments contributing generously to research and development. As Fatima Hassan wrote in Foreign Policy in February, the TRIPS waiver represents a “an existential threat to the continuing practice of treating medicines as a commodity.”

Deep divide. Such discord means the proposal may languish. “The WTO has a fundamental structural problem in that it’s a consensus organization and there are these big differences in views between the developed and developing world. That’s been a problem pretty much since the WTO was created and if anything is a deeper divide today than it was 25 years ago,” Edward Alden, a trade expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy.

Another way. Navigating that divide is Okonjo-Iweala, who has proposed a “third way” to solve the issue “in which we can license manufacturing to countries so that you can have adequate supplies while still making sure that intellectual property issues are taken care of.” Such a move has already been taken with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been licensed to the Serum Institute in India.

Rather than support the proposal at the WTO, it appears the Biden administration is mirroring Okonjo-Iweala’s approach. At Friday’s meeting of the Quad (more on that below), the countries plan to announce financing agreements to boost India’s production of the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which were developed in the United States.

“The top priority of the United States is saving lives and ending the pandemic, including by investing in COVAX and surging vaccine production and delivery. As part of rebuilding our alliances, we are exploring every avenue to coordinate with our global partners and are evaluating the efficacy of this specific proposal by its true potential to save lives,” Adam Hodge, the spokesperson for the U.S. Trade Representative, told Foreign Policy via e-mail.


What We’re Following Today

Sputnik lands in Europe. Production facilities in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany have signed deals to produce the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine, according to the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund. The Sputnik vaccine is not yet approved by EU regulators, but individual states are permitted to grant their own approvals—as Hungary and Slovakia already have. French authorities have contradicted the Russian claim, saying that no companies there had signed any deals to produce the vaccine.

Mexico’s marijuana bill. Lawmakers in Mexico’s Lower House of Congress will today discuss a bill to legalize marijuana in the country, potentially creating the world’s largest legal market for the drug. The bill to legalize and regulate marijuana already passed the Senate in November and moved out of House committees on Monday. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador supports the legislation, which he says will help the country better combat drug cartels. 

Libya’s confidence vote. Libya’s parliament holds a vote of confidence today on a new interim government put forward by Prime Minister-designate Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh. Dbeibeh has drawn up a 35-member cabinet list that was still being amended as of Tuesday in order to accommodate Libya’s various factions. Dbeibeh has said his government will focus on “improving services, unifying state institutions and ending the transitional period by holding elections,” which are planned for December.


Keep an Eye On

The Quad unites. The leaders of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia—a grouping informally known as the Quad—are to meet on Friday for the first time. “That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we’ve placed on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. North Korea is expected to be one of the topics up for discussion on Friday, according to one White House official, who said the Biden administration is almost finished conducting a “highly intense strategic review” of policy toward the country. 

Violence against women. Roughly one-third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the findings of a new report by the World Health Organization. The study covered 161 countries from 2000 to 2018, so does not include pandemic-related domestic violence, which has reportedly increased in a number of countries. The report found that violence against women is most prevalent in intimate partner relationships and that one in four women in a relationship experienced physical or sexual violence by age 19.

Global tax havens. The United Arab Emirates has joined the ranks of the world’s top 10 tax havens, according to a newly released report by the Tax Justice Network, an advocacy group. British territories topped this year’s list, with the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and Bermuda holding the top three places. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Luxembourg round out the European representation in the top ten, while Asian financial hubs Hong Kong and Singapore also featured. The report was critical of the OECD’s handling of global corporate tax policy and argued for the responsibility to be transferred to the United Nations.


Odds and Ends 

Russia and China are taking their cooperation out of this world, after the two countries signed an agreement to build a lunar station together. A memorandum of understanding signed Tuesday by the Chinese and Russian space agencies plans to construct “a complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in the orbit of the moon.” The project joins NASA’s Gateway program, a collaboration with the space agencies of Europe, Japan, and Canada, to build an orbiting lunar space station by the late 2020s.


That’s it for today.

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Correction, March 11, 2021: Hungary and Slovakia have independently approved the Sputnik V vaccine. The Czech Republic’s president is also seeking approval, but that process is ongoing. A previous edition of this newsletter incorrectly described Sputnik V’s status in the Czech Republic.

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

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