The World Trade Organization has struck deals on a partial patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, and made agreements in several other fields of global contention, after a tense six-day ministerial meeting that has renewed some faith in the battered multilateral trading system.
Trade ministers temporarily extended duty-free trade in digital products such as films, computer software and data, and agreed to curb some fishing subsidies and to limit food export restrictions.
The WTO’s 164 members also agreed to update the organisation’s working practices and try to reinvigorate its dispute-settlement system, which has been hamstrung for years by US non-cooperation.
Piyush Goyal, India’s commerce minister, whom many countries privately accused of holding the talks hostage with demands for exceptions, told reporters it was “one of the most successful ministerials the world has seen in a long time”. The decisions made were “a signal that the multilateral order is not broken”, he said.
Valdis Dombrovskis, European trade commissioner, said the WTO was on a “positive path”, adding: “The WTO can provide a response to the acute issues and challenges we are facing and is willing to reform itself to bring its rule book into the 21st century.”
But the meeting in Geneva postponed several contentious decisions for the next gathering in December 2023.
The meeting was scheduled to finish on Wednesday but continued into Friday morning after two all-night sessions. Talks to reduce agricultural subsidies were put aside but countries agreed to prohibit restrictions on the sale of their food to the World Food Programme as the organisation grapples with food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The waiver of the WTO’s “Trips” agreement that governs intellectual property was opposed until Thursday by the UK, which said it would undermine pharmaceutical research. But the deal will let governments compel companies to share their vaccine recipes for the next five years.
The agreement fell short of a demand by India and South Africa to exempt all Covid-related vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, though there will be a review in six months. Instead, governments can issue compulsory licences to domestic manufacturers but must compensate the patent holders.
Campaigners were disappointed at the result. “It is hard to imagine anything with fewer benefits than this, as a response to a massive global health emergency,” said James Love, director of non-governmental organisation Knowledge Ecology International.
India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia had resisted extending the digital customs moratorium, saying it cheated developing countries out of billions of dollars in revenues. But small businesses in many poor countries said they relied on foreign software products to remain competitive, according to trade officials.
The extension of the moratorium until the next ministerial meeting followed heavy lobbying by business groups.
“Business and consumers everywhere already face a food insecurity crisis and an energy crisis. Thanks to this WTO outcome, we have narrowly prevented a data crisis,” said Jane Drake-Brockman of the Australian Services Roundtable.
But business reaction overall was muted.
“It is clear that there’s a tremendous need for a vibrant WTO that is able to tackle shared global priorities, but this ministerial laid bare the increasingly severe limits to meaningful outcomes that require unanimous agreement,” said Jake Colvin, president of the Washington-based National Foreign Trade Council.
The curb on fishing subsidies is the first time the WTO has regulated trade on sustainability grounds alone after talks to do so had dragged on for 21 years. Countries will have to limit subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; overfishing; and financial aid to vessels fishing in unregulated international waters.
Fishing subsidies total about $35bn worldwide, of which $22bn directly contributes to overfishing, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The UN says the number of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 per cent in 1974 to 34.2 per cent in 2017.
The agreements were a triumph for WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” she told delegates at the closing ceremony. “The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”