GENEVA (Reuters) - A key contender to head the World Trade Organization told Reuters on Tuesday she thinks the body should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, and this topic should be part of negotiations if she wins.
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, seen by delegates as a top candidate to lead the WTO, currently chairs the GAVI vaccine alliance board and stressed her credentials among five remaining candidates “at the intersection between public health and trade”.
“Trade can contribute to public health - seeing that connection, invoking those (WTO) rules, actively discussing COVID-19 issues and how WTO can help,” the former finance minister and World Bank managing-director said. “For me, that would be a priority.”
Okonjo-Iweala, one of two African candidates in the second of three rounds, says she is discussing with members the options for using WTO intellectual property rules to get special licences to deliver COVID-19 medicines to poorer countries.
“This is wonderful because it could also contribute to more accessibility and affordability eventually for vaccines and for therapeutics,” she said, adding she hoped such discussions would be part of a planned 2021 trade negotiations package.
She also said she would urge the at least 80 countries and territories which have raised barriers in response to the COVID-19 crisis, including on medical equipment, to lower them.
Interest in COVAX - the joint programme between GAVI and WHO to distribute COVID-19 vaccines equitably - is growing, she said. A GAVI spokesman confirmed there were 167 now committed to the plan - 75 wealthier economies and 92 poorer economies.
“Countries have been coming on their own ... We are getting close to to the immediate goal (of $2 billion) which is very comforting because that means we can make advanced purchase commitments for vaccines,” she said, referring to the initial fund-raising goal to supply low- and middle-income countries.
China, Russia and the United States remain outside the plan.
Okonjo-Iweala urged African countries not to hedge their bets and sign separate procurement deals to COVAX, at least not in the initial phase which anticipates giving them enough doses to vaccinate up to 20% of their populations.
“If you make a mistake and procure the wrong thing people will run away,” she said, referring to vaccine scepticism.
She repeated pledges to reform the WTO and said she was having “constructive conversations” with Washington - a deep critic of the body and whose support is vital for any DG’s future tenure.
In a possible turning point in the race last week, two delegates said she received a standing ovation at a presentation before African ambassadors at which her rival, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, also presented.
Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Giles Elgood
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