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UK behaviour at WTO exposes a dishonest approach to trade negotiations and will prolong the pandemic globally

4 min read

As we adapt to live with COVID we must not forget that our ability to access vaccines, tests and treatments is what underpins this freedom.

Last week, the UK and 163 other nations that are members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) met to decide on intellectual property rules that ultimately determine who does, or does not, get access to these life-saving health tools.

Despite the Government wanting to project an image of 'Global Britain’ it has been reported that the UK, along with Switzerland,  stymied negotiations by doing its utmost to make this decision as narrow and weak as possible. In doing so, it has turned its back on the majority of world’s countries, including key partners like India. Not only does this put a larger question mark over when the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, it also sets a dangerous precedent for how the UK Government will act in future global health emergencies.

A majority of countries at the WTO had announced support for a temporary waiver proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020. They were joined by Nobel laureates, hundreds of scientists and even the Pope who all recognised that this proposal would address the issue of inequitable access. The idea was that the waiver would facilitate local manufacturing and give more countries autonomy over their COVID response, rather than making them wait unknown amounts of time for charitable donations from high income countries.

“Donation” efforts themselves have been a categorical failure. Rather than donating doses, the UK has actually charged developing countries for vaccines by deducting them from existing aid - at an above-cost price.

However the EU, alongside a wilfully silent US, spearheaded the effort against the waiver at the WTO by putting forward a counter text that excluded tests and treatments and added greater restrictions on lower-income countries' ability to manufacture vaccines in the future.

The UK continued to stall on the waiver, frustrating civil society organisations and last week tried to further water down the text, taking advantage of undemocratic processes which saw many of the countries hardest hit by vaccine and treatment inequality excluded from discussions.

This approach runs counter to stated UK objectives. Although the FCDO has just released an International Development Strategy which, among many priorities, states ‘Success means unleashing the potential of people in lower income countries to improve their lives’. The Government, in pushing to make the decision entirely unworkable in supporting local manufacturing, has shown it will not work to back up its stated strategy.

Indeed, whilst the text is focused on vaccines there is a reference to extending the decision to treatments and diagnostics in 6 months time, reports show that the UK and Switzerland pushed for this reference to be deleted. This despite growing alarm that this year’s supply of the most effective COVID-19 treatments have been almost entirely brought up by high income countries like ours.

Trade rules are never easy to negotiate, but when it comes to life-saving health tools for a pandemic that has devastated the world economy, one would hope there would be a sense of shared global understanding and compromise that would help us all move forward together.

Furthermore, how can we be expected to enter trade negotiations with international countries when we won’t follow through on our stated objectives?

If we want to be ready for the next health crises, decentralising manufacturing of medicines and supply chains will be fundamental to achieving this. It was concerning to see my honourable colleague, the International Trade Secretary, last week endorsing an article which attempted to diminish the vital role of the generic industry in lower income countries and disregarded the historical role such companies have played, for example in drastically improving access to affordable HIV treatments.

The UK Government should be living up to the commitments it has set itself in the International Development Strategy, as it notes, ‘When people have more power and choice, populations become more prosperous, peaceful and healthier.”

It is now past time to release the chokehold of intellectual property monopolies and give lower-income countries the opportunity to manufacture their own health tools for their own people, so we can defeat this virus together and prepare for future challenges. In a context where countries like the UK are clinging to arcane and inflexible intellectual property rules, and where the WTO appears unable to deliver, then national governments must act to work around these rules wherever necessary.

Dr Dan Poulter MP is an NHS hospital doctor, who has served as the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich since May 2010. He is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Global Health and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus.

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