The decision came on Friday shortly before midnight: at the last minute the World Trade Organization (WTO) called off the Ministerial Conference set for 30 November to 3 December in Geneva, postponing it indefinitely. The restrictions on flights from Southern Africa introduced by Switzerland and the European Union following the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus are the reason for this. It would have been unthinkable to hold such an important meeting in the absence of several ministers; and nothing less could have been expected of the Organization’s first African Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Switzerland can indeed breathe a sigh of relief, for now: pressure had been mounting on the country from all sides to finally agree to the temporary waiver of patent and other intellectual property rights over vaccines, therapeutics and antibody tests (TRIPS waiver) proposed by India and South Africa. This proposal is supported by some 100 countries and in part even by the USA, which has agreed at least to the suspension of intellectual property protection on vaccines.
Besides the European Union and the United Kingdom, Switzerland is one of the few countries still holding out. On 25 November, however, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in favour of the waiver, and this could influence European Commission decisions in the future.
The WTO General Council should decide
What happens next? Technically speaking, a TRIPS waiver does not require a Ministerial Conference – it can be approved by the WTO General Council, as has often been the case in the past. The only difference is that the Ministerial Conference would have raised the profile of the topic considerably. Demonstrations are planned for Geneva and other cities, NGOs like Alliance Sud have mobilised, and the world’s media are taking an interest in the topic.
Naturally, the conference would have been no cakewalk; no-one could foresee the outcome, but the intransigence of Switzerland and a few other countries may have caused it to collapse, as WTO decisions are taken by consensus. Work on the waiver should therefore continue in the Council for TRIPS, where Switzerland is finding itself increasingly isolated: Germany has so far spearheaded the objection within the European Union, but the new centre-left government could shift this position.
Paradoxically, the new Omicron variant has demonstrated yet again that no-one can be safe from the virus until the entire world has overcome the Corona crisis. It is therefore more urgent than ever to scale up the production capacity for vaccines, tests and therapeutics in developing countries. This also takes place through the suspension of patents and the transfer of technology and know-how by the pharmaceutical companies. It is to be hoped that this occurs before the next Ministerial Conference, the date of which has not yet been set. Failing that, it could prove too late to contain the virus that has gripped the world for the past two years.