The World Trade Organisation (WTO) director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has urged member countries of the global agency to show the requisite political will to make multilateral compromises on intellectual property and other issues for a global response to Covid-19 and future pandemics.

The WTO director-general’s remarks came at a meeting convened by general council chair ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) on January 10 in response to India’s proposal to hold a virtual ministerial conference on the WTO’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a proposed waiver of relevant intellectual property protections.

India had on December 23 sent a letter to the general council chair calling for a virtual ministerial meeting to be held on the issue of the WTO response to the pandemic, including the proposal to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement for Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The informal general council meeting held on January 10 has been termed as an open-ended informal general council meeting by ambassador Castillo.

According to a WTO statement, DG Okonjo-Iweala, in her remarks at the meeting, called for urgent action towards a comprehensive WTO outcome on pandemic response. "More than two years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our 12th Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of allowing large sections of the world to remain unvaccinated," she said.

"We at the WTO now have to step up urgently to do our part to reach a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues so as to fully contribute to the global efforts in the fight against Covid-19," she added.

The WTO statement said that DG Okonjo-Iweala, together with Deputy Director-General Anabel González, updated the members on their efforts "to support an informal group of members to converge around a meaningful acceptable outcome that can be built upon by the wider membership to bring a successful conclusion to the IP issue."

Work had continued over the holidays, she said. "It is slow but steady progress, and we are hopeful that this approach can help us together find the direction we need."

"There is no better time to build convergence than now," the director-general added, urging all members to participate actively and constructively in the ongoing processes at the General Council and the TRIPS Council.

Accoding to DG, while pandemic response remained the most urgent endeavour facing WTO members, not least given the spectre of even newer coronavirus variants, many members had reached out to her to emphasise the importance of other items on the WTO agenda, including fisheries subsidies, agriculture and WTO reform. She stressed that these areas remained priorities for outcomes, and expressed hope "that we can all agree on getting results as soon as possible."

Describing the meeting as "useful", general council chair ambassador Castillo said he would continue to hold consultations with members on the Indian proposal, underlining the urgency and importance of reaching a meaningful outcome, he said that a common WTO response to Covid-19 remains an urgent priority for the membership.

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