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New WTO boss warns against vaccine nationalism

The newly-appointed head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has told the BBC that vaccine protectionism must be overcome to solve the pandemic.

The newly-appointed head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has told the BBC that vaccine protectionism must be overcome to solve the pandemic.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said “a phenomenon where rich countries are vaccinating their populations and poor countries have to wait” must be avoided.

In recent weeks, several countries have tried to prevent the export of vaccines made within their borders.

But Dr Okonjo-Iweala said protectionism would hinder a global recovery.

“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 said.

Vaccine boss

Until the end of last year Dr Okonjo-Iweala chaired the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, which aims to increase access to vaccines around the world and she now says the WTO has crucial work to do in this area.

There is an ongoing debate about relaxing WTO rules on intellectual property so that more drug manufacturers can make the jabs. Dr Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that whilst “some developing countries are asking for waivers, developed countries feel that this might impinge on intellectual property”.

But she argues for “a third way, in which we can licence manufacturing to countries so that you can have adequate supplies while still making sure that intellectual property issues are taken care of”.

That is already happening with the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine, which has been licenced to the Serum Institute of India.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
                                                                                                                Image copyright Getty Images

While the pandemic is the most pressing challenge facing the WTO’s new leader, it is not the only one.

The organisation is in a fight for relevance in the eyes of many countries that consider its rules outdated and believe that the organisation itself has been slow to adapt to changes in the global economy.

After a selection process which was dragged out by a lack of support from the administration of former US President Donald Trump, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is mindful of what her victory represents.

“I’m proud to be the first woman and the first African,” she said.

The reformer

However, she is keen to get to work as a reformer, a reputation she earned when she was second in command at the World Bank, and as Nigeria’s Finance Minister, where she won significant reductions in her country’s international debt obligations.

She said: “There is an issue of broken trust between members and a lot of work [to be done] to update the rules of the WTO to [meet] 21st century realities.”

If the challenges of coronavirus can be tackled, those “small steps, early wins and successes can then help create the trust and allow you to do the bigger reforms”, she said.

Among those challenges is an elusive deal on fishing subsidies.

“From there, we can go on to reform the dispute settlement system, which is moribund at the moment, but which is needed, because that’s the only place in the world where members can bring trade disputes.”

It was brought to a halt by President Trump vetoing the appointment of new judges to the body tasked with solving those disagreements.

“From there, we can go on to update the rules on areas like the digital economy and e-commerce,” she said, adding that she also wanted to change the way women are served by the WTO and how climate change and trade are thought about.

US-China trade war

The US-China trade war is another area where the WTO has struggled to have an impact, given its lack of enforcement mechanisms. And that is despite a ruling last year that US tariffs were “inconsistent” with international trade rules.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala said: “We can be very helpful to both the US and China to help bring them together to solve these problems.”

One reason the WTO has struggled to make progress in many areas is because of the insistence that decisions be made by the consensus of all 164 members.

When asked if decisions should be taken on a majority, rather than consensus basis, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said: “It should not be such that this manner of decision making gets in the way of welfare enhancing innovations or measures for the membership.”

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