WTO boss seeks boost for COVID-19 vaccine production, gets backing

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization’s chief on Tuesday called for action on boosting COVID-19 vaccine production in developing countries as several members of the global trade watchdog urged her to hold urgent talks with manufacturers to do so.

FILE PHOTO: New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a session of the WTO General Council upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take an office in Geneva, Switzerland March 1, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister who was until recently chair of the board of global vaccine alliance GAVI, took on the top job at the global trade watchdog last week. She has said health and vaccine access would be a top priority.

“The fact is that each additional day the vaccine shortage continues, people will pay with their lives,” Okonjo-Iweala said at a two-day summit focused on COVID-19 vaccine production, adding that around 130 countries were still waiting for vaccines.

She added that new vaccine manufacturing sites could be prepared in six to seven months or less than half the time previously thought.

In a sign that her ideas are gaining traction, seven of the body’s 164 members released a document on Tuesday urging her to hold urgent talks with COVID-19 vaccine developers and manufacturers on boosting production. The WTO chief has few executive powers and members’ support is essential.

“... The WTO should rapidly make use of its resources to the full extent to foster a prompt, pragmatic and tangible acceleration in the global response to COVID-19, and particularly the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” said the document co-sponsored by Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Norway and Turkey.

In parallel, WTO members are also due to discuss a possible waiver for intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs on Wednesday that could allow producers in more countries to begin manufacturing shots.

However, talks are currently deadlocked with several wealthy countries opposing the waiver, saying it would undermine the expensive research that allowed the production of COVID-19 vaccines in the first place.

Okonjo-Iweala also said in her speech that pandemic-related export restrictions had fallen in recent months, urging countries to drop or reduce the remaining ones or set timelines for their phase-out to help minimise problems in the vaccine supply chain.

The COVAX vaccine-sharing programme, created to provide vaccines for poor and middle-income countries and backed by the GAVI alliance and the World Health Organisation (WHO), late in February began rolling out delivery of doses to African countries. It said earlier this month that it would deliver 237 millions doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccination to 142 countries by the end of May.

Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis