Washington's surprise backing for patent waivers on COVID-19 vaccines could push through a global deal on a long-stuck issue, but observers warned Thursday the scope might be narrower than some hope.
"This is a game-changer, there is no doubt about that," a Western trade diplomat close to ongoing patent waiver discussions at the World Trade Organization in Geneva told AFP.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai caught many by surprise Wednesday when she announced that Washington now supports the months-long push for a global waiver on patent protections for the Covid-19 jabs while the pandemic rages.
That marked a dramatic about-face in the position of the United States, which has long figured among the staunchest defenders of upholding intellectual property rights for vaccines.
But since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden had been under intense pressure to back the move that proponents say could help poorer nations produce cheaper generic versions of the vaccines, amid growing outrage over the uneven distribution of jabs.
In a bid to help boost production and ensure that poorer nations can get their fair share, India and South Africa have since October been leading the efforts at the WTO towards a global agreement for the temporary removal of IP protections on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and other tools needed to battle the pandemic.
'Catalyst for change'
But that notion has until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which have insisted the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn the move could hamper innovation.
Observers said the shift by Washington dramatically increased the likelihood that countries could reach an agreement.
"This might be a catalyst for change," Gaetan de Rassenfosse, an intellectual property expert at Switzerland's EPFL technical university, told AFP.
"The US is the big player in the arena," he said, pointing out that other countries which have balked at the idea of an IP waiver "will be more and more isolated".
And indeed, within hours of the US announcement, the French, German and EU leadership, among others, had already signalled they were ready to discuss the waiver proposal they had previously opposed.
"Now that Biden has moved... they don't really have a choice," Samira Guennif, an association economics professor at the Paris-Nord University, told AFP.
The Western diplomat in Geneva agreed that there was a lot of political pressure now for countries to fall in line, pointing out that no-one "wants to be left standing there on their own".
'Movement on both sides'
Meanwhile there has also been movement on the other side of the discussion, with India and South Africa recently informing the WTO they were revising their original proposal, with a new text expected next week, hinting that some compromise was possible.
That has put an end to a seemingly endless circular discussion at the global trade body, the Western diplomat said.
"There is suddenly movement on both sides, so we are in a completely different situation for further discussions."
In light of the WTO's usual glacial pace in decision-making -- with agreements requiring consensus backing by all 164 member states -- a deal could still be a way off.
"This could take a while. It risks not coming fast enough to address the health emergency," Guennif warned.
Others, however, suggested that the massive political pressure around this issue could help speed up the process.
"If they want to make it happen quickly, they can," Rassenfosse said.
The Western diplomat stressed though that much remained to be negotiated and clarified, pointing out that Biden's proposal was far narrower than the original waiver push, which also urged that patent rights be waived on things like Covid-19 treatments, equipment and clinical trial data.
"There is quite a big gap in the ambition level between the two," the diplomat said.
If India and South Africa are willing to scale back their ambitions and can accept an agreement on a patent waiver for vaccines only, a deal could probably be reached quickly.
"But if they stick to all their demands and say we want all or nothing, then this will take a lot longer," the diplomat said. (AFP)