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WTO must do better to address COVID-19

Recently the World Trade Organization (WTO) met at the twelfth Ministerial Conference, MC-12 to discuss a waiver on the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It was an opportunity to set rules that could have saved millions of lives impacted by the coronavirus. Instead, the WTO voted not to waive the intellectual property protections held by large pharmaceutical companies which would have allowed low and middle-income countries to produce versions of COVID-19 products more easily. The compromise deal which was reached does not include the transfer of the vaccine technologies necessary to stop the pandemic.  

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) joins other civil society groups in condemning this deal and reminding the WTO and the international community that our shared security demands that we act equitably to secure our future. The fastest way to end the pandemic is to ensure global vaccine access. The WTO MC-12 decision will allow rich nations and pharmaceutical companies to hoard vaccines and technology while low and middle-income countries will struggle to secure it for their populations. We strongly urge the WTO and the international community to explore other options to facilitate vaccine access worldwide. 

In many of the countries around the world where AFSC operates, we have seen first-hand the devastation that COVID-19 has caused, including economic crisis and increased poverty. The discovery of newer Omicron subvariants should be a warning of the danger which vaccine hoarding puts us all in. It is immoral for WTO members to put profits of wealthy pharmaceutical companies over people's lives. 

It is time for the international community to shift the decisions on global access to vaccines to the correct entity/entities. While the WTO oversees the rules of trade between nations, it is the World Health Organization (WHO) which deals with global health, and the United Nations Security Council handles global security. It is our strong belief that any decisions made by the WTO will put trade benefits at the center rather than human lives. We urge the United Nations General Assembly to take up the decision on saving lives as a priority and not relegate it to the organization whose priority is trade related. We must shift these critical life-saving decisions to where they belong – WHO, UN General Assembly, and others.