An Open Letter to Trade Ministries and the World Trade Organization (WTO) Stop all trade and investment treaty negotiations during the COVID-19 outbreak and refocus on access to medical supplies and saving lives
April 17, 2020
Dear World Trade Organization Members,
A new coronavirus has caused a COVID-19 pandemic that has spread across nearly all countries. It is currently predicted to infect millions and cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for governments to take a whole- of-government, whole-of-society approach to address this pandemic and refocus their attention on suppressing and controlling COVID-19.
Many governments at the national and subnational level are already doing so. Governments are working around the clock to deal with the health aspects including life-threatening shortages of medical supplies, including medicines, and healthcare workers and preparing for a global economic shock that is more severe than the 2008 global financial crisis. Government officials are being diverted to working on the pandemic, and trade negotiators and key decision makers have already fallen sick with the coronavirus.
Countries do not have enough staff and other resources to deal with just the health aspects of the pandemic. These pressures are especially intense for developing countries. Governments everywhere are facing shortages of essential test kits and other medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment including masks, ventilators, vaccines and medicines. Vaccines and potential medicines to treat COVID-19 are under clinical trial and development and it is not clear whether intellectual property will be a barrier to their supply, access and affordability due to currently applicable obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and free trade agreements.
Given this clear and urgent priority, we are shocked that some trade negotiations are still continuing in the WTO, as well as bilaterally and regionally, using virtual technologies. It is not feasible for many developing and least developed countries to participate, given the digital divide and the need to focus all governmental resources on this public health emergency. Nor should countries be diverting their resources into negotiating rules for a world that will be unimaginably different once the pandemic subsides.
The first and only priority for trade negotiators at this time should be to remove all obstacles, including intellectual property rules, in existing agreements that hinder timely and affordable access to medical supplies, such as lifesaving medicines, devices, diagnostics and vaccines, and the ability of governments to take whatever steps are necessary to address this crisis.
Unilateral sanctions that prevent countries from obtaining essential medical supplies must end.
We call on WTO Members to ensure that all countries have the flexibilities to set aside trade rules that constrain their ability to resolve the pandemic crisis, without fear of repercussions, and to cease other negotiations and activities that divert their energy and resources from that goal.
We further call on you to recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates a fundamental re-think of the types of rules that are negotiated in trade agreements, including those that can encourage monopolies and reduce affordable access to all forms of medical supplies, and put at risk the lives of people in every country of the world.