WTO's new chief says vaccine protectionism must be avoided

Saleha Riaz
·3 min read
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to be chosen as director-general of the WTO. Photo: WTO
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to be chosen as director-general of the WTO. Photo: WTO

The World Trade Organzation’s (WTO) new chief warned that vaccine protectionism, "a phenomenon where rich countries are vaccinating their populations and poor countries have to wait," must be avoided if global recovery from the pandemic is to be achieved.

Several countries have tried to stop the export of vaccines. The EU, for instance, had threatened to withhold vaccine exports until it has its share.

The UK’s health minister Matt Hancock has also in the past said rejecting vaccine nationalism and protectionism was crucial.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and the first African to be chosen as director-general of the organisation, also told the BBC: "The nature of the pandemic and the mutation of many variants makes this such that no one country can feel safe until every country has taken precautions to vaccinate its population.”

She chaired the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, which aims to increase access to immunisation in poor countries.

Regarding the debate about easing WTO rules on intellectual property so that more drug manufacturers can make the vaccines, Okonjo-Iweala said “some developing countries are asking for waivers, developed countries feel that this might impinge on intellectual property."

She suggested a way around this could be to “licence manufacturing to countries so that you can have adequate supplies while still making sure that intellectual property issues are taken care of."

One example of this is Oxford University/AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccine, which has been licensed to the Serum Institute of India.

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In December the WTO failed to agree on a proposal to exempt COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property rights, an idea that was opposed by pharma giants.

The proposal had aimed to facilitate more knowledge-sharing and the rapid scale-up of production sites for urgent COVID-19 medical goods, including vaccines.

Earlier this week, in a WTO statement about her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said a “strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.”

The statement explained that her appointment follows months of uncertainty which arose when the US initially refused to join the consensus around Okonjo-Iweala and instead supported South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee.

But following Yoo's decision to withdraw her candidacy, the administration of newly elected US President Joe Biden. dropped the objection.

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On the US-China trade war, Okonjo-Iweala said: "We can be very helpful to both the US and China to help bring them together to solve these problems."

The organisation has struggled to make an impact on this issue due to its lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Watch: Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes WTO's new leader