Late on Friday, with only days to go until its 12th summit was due to commence, the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced that its most important meeting of the year couldn’t proceed. With alarm spreading about the Omicron Covid-19 variant, the WTO’s host country, Switzerland, closed its borders to southern Africa and introduced quarantine restrictions for visitors from Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, where cases have been detected, making travel for many government delegations impossible. The summit, billed as critical for an institution in crisis, is now indefinitely postponed.
The irony, not lost on many delegates from Africa, Asia and Latin America, is that global trade rules overseen by the WTO are actually at the heart of the dreadful situation the world is now confronting.
Well over a year ago, India and South Africa called on the WTO to suspend part of an intellectual property agreement known as Trips, which allows pharmaceutical corporations to monopolise medical knowledge. Even though many Covid-19 vaccines and treatments were paid for from the public purse, Trips, the brainchild of a former big pharma executive, effectively means that the resulting medicines become the highly profitable property of a handful of the world’s biggest businesses.
India and South Africa’s proposal is backed by pretty much every southern government. They are also joined, in a somewhat lacklustre manner, by the United States and a smattering of wealthy countries, who are at least prepared to countenance the need for radical action in the face of staggering levels of vaccine inequality.
But the proposal is being blocked by Britain, Switzerland and the EU, defending big pharma and refusing to accept the need for change. These governments successfully grabbed as much of the limited supply of the vaccine doses as they could, achieved some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and are now even throwing hundreds of thousands of doses in the bin. It’s no wonder that countries still struggling to vaccinate their frontline workers aren’t in the mood to be told “there’s really no problem, just wait a while longer”.
The Omicron variant is the inevitable result of European strategy. Experts have been warning for months that failure to vaccinate most of the world is the best way to ensure the spread of new and potentially dangerous Covid-19 variants, some of which could undermine even the vaccines we have created. It is in this very real sense that none of us are safe until we’re all safe.
But the WTO stands at the apex of a trade system which rules that nothing should get in the way of “the market”. An unhindered market is all we need, so the dogma goes, to get food to the hungry and medicine to the sick.
Covid-19 is the proof that this is a fallacy. It has shown us that the market cannot solve a crisis. In fact, the market has ensured the rich and powerful get many times what they need while the poorest get virtually nothing. Meanwhile, two medicines alone – the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – are making the companies behind them $1,000 (£749) per second in profit.
Will Britain and other countries blocking the waiver learn their lesson now? Don’t hold your breath. If the WTO meeting had gone ahead, these countries would, in fact, have pushed a quite separate “solution” to the Covid-19 pandemic: more trade liberalisation and even more market freedoms. The measures they back include limiting export bans, lowering tariffs, promoting the deregulation and privatisation of services, and otherwise closing the space which countries have to respond to this or indeed future pandemics by making it harder for countries in the global south to nurture their own pharmaceutical industries.
When the rules of the system have failed so badly, countries need more room to manoeuvre, not less. And while no one is arguing that export bans are the solution to a pandemic, in a context where rich countries are trying to grab vaccines from countries with much lower levels of protection, they can, unfortunately, be necessary. Just ask poorly vaccinated South Africa, which was forced to export Johnson & Johnson doses to a heavily vaccinated Europe. Or India, which sent millions of AstraZeneca doses to Britain even when it faced a catastrophic upsurge of cases itself.
If we want to recover from Covid-19, and approach the next pandemic better prepared, we need to share the knowhow behind essential medicines and build research, development and manufacturing capabilities around the world outside the control of big pharma. The WHO is trying to kick-start such a project in South Africa, reverse engineering Moderna’s vaccine so they can share it with the world. Far from helping these efforts, WTO rules are a major impediment.
Across the board, whether on Covid-19 or agricultural policy, WTO rules have removed governments’ ability to protect their citizens, stretched supply chains to breaking point and undermined small producers.
For many, the WTO’s legitimacy expired a long time ago. But the failure to agree a Trips waiver in the past 12 months is the final straw in the eyes of many African, Asian and Latin American governments. If the WTO fails to reform, they will simply have to begin doing things differently.
The next steps should be clear. The WTO doesn’t need a physical meeting to recognise the disastrous failure of allowing the global marketplace to manage a pandemic. On Friday, President Biden spoke out again in favour of an intellectual property waiver, albeit one more limited than South Africa and India would like. Earlier in the day, Norway, a previous opponent of the proposal, said it was moving towards support.
It’s time for free-market fundamentalists like Britain to move out of the way. If they don’t, the WTO’s time could finally be up.