The WTO Failed the World in Covid Pandemic-related technology and intellectual property cannot remain in its authority.

Matthew M. Kavanagh,

This month the World Trade Organization threw in the towel on COVID-19. Medicines like Paxlovid have been plentiful in the U.S. and Europe, but because of insufficient supplies and high prices, hardly anyone in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has had access. After more than three years of debate, the WTO declared on Feb. 13 that it was unable to reach agreement on waiving global patent rules for COVID-19 treatment to ease the way for expanded production.

Those confused about why the WTO is even still debating COVID-19 nearly a year after the public health emergency was declared over by the World Health Organization can be forgiven. Not only is this slow speed not what the world needs in a pandemic, it is also not how the World Trade Organization is supposed to work, and begs questions on WTO’s relevance in a multi-crisis world. It also makes clear that responsibility for the global governance of pandemic-related technology and intellectual property cannot remain with the WTO.

As negotiations have reconvened this week in Geneva over a new Pandemic Treaty, the question of which organizations should manage the response is a live question. Some negotiators are pushing for a role for the world’s health ministers and the World Health Organization on intellectual property, but the U.S. negotiator and others say these questions should stay with the WTO. The WTO’s failure, though, make this an increasingly untenable position: If the WTO cannot act in a pandemic to remove patents barriers and promote sharing of technology so the world can produce enough medicines and vaccines, then the WHO must be empowered to do so.