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The WTO Is Back

The agreements adopted at the World Trade Organization's recent ministerial conference lay a foundation for members to rebuild trust, reach further deals, and advance much-needed institutional reforms to keep the global trade body fit for purpose. The goal must be to continue delivering results for people around the world.

GENEVA – As a beautiful dawn crept over Lake Geneva on June 17, a remarkable thing happened at the World Trade Organization’s headquarters. After nearly six days of negotiations at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference – culminating in a marathon 48 hours of non-stop talks – ministers and senior officials from the body’s 164 member states adopted a historic package of agreements. The multilateral deals – of a scale and scope that the WTO has not achieved since the mid-1990s – will help people, businesses, and the planet.

For example, ministers struck a compromise on a long-debated proposal to waive intellectual-property protections related to COVID-19 countermeasures. Current COVID-19 vaccine supplies remain heavily dependent on the four WTO members that together account for over 90% of exported doses. As the pandemic has shown, many import-dependent regions are vulnerable to export restrictions introduced by other countries in the face of domestic crises.

Governments at the center of the negotiations believe that the outcome – which has been criticized by public-health activists for doing too little and by pharmaceutical firms for going too far – will contribute to ongoing efforts to deconcentrate and diversify vaccine manufacturing capacity. This is significant for the future resilience of global vaccine supplies. Ministers also pledged to keep cross-border trade in medical supplies and components open and transparent, which will help members to gain better access to products needed to fight this pandemic – and to prepare better for the next one.