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Escape clause to avoid disputes in pandemic, global response system with other agencies key: India to WTO

India has suggested the World Trade Organization (WTO) to consider possible escape clauses for countries to avoid disputes while using the flexibilities in global trade agreements in response to current and future pandemics and natural disasters.

New Delhi has also said that the WTO, along with other international organisations, needs to put in place a pandemic response system, that would map manufacturing capacities and demands, and allow special visas/permits for healthcare professionals besides creating a pool of resources of essential goods and services.

At a meeting of the General Council of the organisation a few days ago, India suggested the WTO Secretariat to catalogue the flexibilities under the existing pacts and also of those rules that can be relaxed, to enable members to respond to pandemics and natural disasters.

“We also need to identify WTO Agreements, which do not contain such flexibilities or escape clauses and examine possibility of providing flexibilities/escape clauses in such Agreements,“ India said, ahead of a key ministerial conference of the WTO in December.

On an international pandemic response system, India said during the current Covid-19 pandemic, a pool of goods such
as oxygen concentrators, essential medicines and oximetres, and services through temporary measures involving special permits for short duration supply of healthcare professionals for four to eight weeks, both physically or
remotely to address the acute shortages, could be created.

India also insisted that temporary measures such as trade facilitation measures and tariff liberalization, to handle pandemics and natural disasters, need not be made permanent as making them permanent would unnecessarily circumscribe the members’ policy space during normal times.

“Decision to take any measure permanent or not should be left to the concerned members, as per rights and obligations under the WTO” India’s representative said.

Moreover, while providing for regulatory coherence to avoid duplications and save time, due care should be taken to ensure that all regulatory authorities concerns have access to the regulatory dossiers.

Further, any WTO response to pandemics without the waiver from Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement will not be “credible”, India said .

The proposal, floated last year by India and South Africa, is now sponsored by 64 members and seeks to facilitate access to Covid medicines.

WTO talks on Trips waiver from June 30

World Trade Organization (WTO) members will on June 30 begin talks on the scope and coverage of the waiver of provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement proposed by India and South Africa for Covid-related medicines.

At the informal meeting of the Trips Council on Thursday, it was also decided that other issues such as duration and implementation of the waiver will be discussed at a later stage depending on the first stage of talks, officials said.

Differences remain on how to ensure rapid and equitable access to vaccines and Covid-related medical products for all as the European Union and a few others are still opposing a revised proposal by India and South Africa seeking patent waivers on Covid-related medical products for three years, with a provision to review the duration annually.

“There was agreement on regular Trips Council sessions to push negotiations,” said an official.

The meeting was the first after the WTO members agreed to engage in text-based discussions on the proposal for waiver of intellectual protection rights for Covid medication.

At the Thursday meeting, the US expressed doubts about starting a discussion on the scope of the waiver instead of focusing on common objectives and said some proposals could be very expensive as they unfold over the next 5-10 years.

The discussions on the proposal will continue on July 6, 14 and 20 between which meetings among small groups would be held. The first consultation period will start soon, leading up to the first open-ended session and stock taking meeting on June 30.

The General Council of the WTO will check the progress of the negotiations on July 27-28, instead of July 21-22 as planned earlier, the official said.

EU seeks parity
The European Union, which has backed the use of flexibilities within existing frameworks such as compulsory licences instead of new ones, sought its submission to be treated on a par with the waiver proposal though India and South Africa argued that the two be discussed separately in parallel tracks.

“While the India and South Africa proposal is based on Article 9 of the WTO Agreement, what the EU has made is not a formal proposal. They can’t be treated equally,” said an expert on WTO issues.

South Africa argued that from the legal point of view of the discussions, the waiver proposal and the communication by the EU should be addressed on different tracks.