GENEVA - The head of the World Trade Organization laid out a series of actions on Wednesday for countries and drug makers to increase production of coronavirus vaccines and share them more widely and fairly.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who became WTO director-general in March, called a closed-door meeting of producers, governments and others over inequitable access, with low-income countries administering just 0.2% of 700 million global doses.
In her concluding remarks, Okonjo-Iweala said that concerns over cross-border supply chains, including export curbs and shortages of skilled personnel, had reinforced her view that the WTO must play a central role in the response to the pandemic.
"In the coming weeks and months, we expect concrete follow-up action. These issues are not easy, but the political will and engagement from the private sector displayed today, suggests it is possible," she said.
WTO members, she said, needed to reduce export restrictions and work to ease logistics and customs procedures.
They should also advance negotiations on a proposal by India and South Africa and backed by over 80 WTO members, to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights of pharmaceutical companies.
WTO members have discussed the issue eight times, without a breakthrough.
Western nations argue protecting IP rights encourages research and that suspending those rights would not yield a sudden surge of vaccine supply.
Okonjo-Iweala said she hoped a common goal would bring parties to the middle and find a solution acceptable to all.
The WTO head urged vaccine makers to increase technology transfer to bring in new manufacturing capacity and to be transparent on contracts and pricing. Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are among those producing the shots.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai told attendees the gaping divide between developed and developing countries' access to medicines, seen previously during the AIDS crisis, was "completely unacceptable" and could not be repeated.
"As governments and leaders of international institutions, the highest standards of courage and sacrifice are demanded of us in times of crisis. The same needs to be demanded of industry," she said, adding that the "market has once again failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries."
The US Chamber of Commerce said Tai's comments were unfair given the rapid development of multiple vaccines over the past year, big boosts in production, and over 260 partnership agreements already in place for production and distribution.
"Industry has been doing its part by investing in R&D for many decades," said Patrick Kilbride, senior vice president of the Chamber's Global Innovation Policy Center, adding that Tai "threw the industry under the bus" with her statement.
He said the debate over the IP waiver was a distraction from the bigger problem of ensuring ways to quickly distribute and administer the vaccines in developing countries. The Chamber argues that waiving IP rights could allow China and other countries to unfairly benefit from US development efforts.