GENEVA— The World Trade Organization chief called Wednesday for international agreement on how to ensure more equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, amid an ongoing standoff over a proposed patent waiver for the jabs.
"The way the WTO handles this matter is critical," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told country representatives taking part in a meeting of the WTO general council, the organization's main decision-making body.
"We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to COVID-19 because the world is watching," she said, describing equitable access to the tools to fight the pandemic as the "moral and economic issue of our time."
The global trade body has for months been facing calls led by India and South Africa to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, in a move proponents say would help boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.
But that notion has until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn the move could hamper innovation.
Okonjo-Iweala, who became the first woman and first African to take the helm of the WTO on March 1, has not taken a position on whether the waiver is the way forward, but has insisted that countries need to agree on a common path that will help resolve the issue of unequal access to the vaccines.
"Vaccine policy is economic policy because the global economic recovery cannot be sustained unless we find a way to get equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics," she said.
While the positions on waiving patent rights remain divided, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters that Wednesday's discussions on the proposal had been "very constructive."
"All parties have the same objective, which is to ramp up production and improve the efficiency and the equity of the distribution process," he said, adding that all of more than 40 country representatives who spoke during the meeting agreed "that not enough vaccines are getting to the developing world."
While opinions on the best route to ramping up production differed, he said the tone of the meeting had been much more constructive than during previous discussions.
Among other things, he said, India and South Africa had said they plan to "revise their proposal," with a new text expected next week with possible "compromises."
WTO said a meeting might be held later this month to discuss the revised text before a formal meeting planned in early June.
Okonjo-Iweala welcomed the news of the coming text revision aimed to help reconcile positions.
"I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all sides," she said.
She voiced hope that the parties could reach an agreement that would "allow the kinds of answers that our developing country members are looking at with respect to vaccines, whilst at the same time looking at research and innovation and how to protect them."