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Wealthy countries block COVID-19 drugs rights waiver at WTO - sources

GENEVA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Wealthy nations on Friday reiterated their opposition to a proposal to waive intellectual property rules for COVID-19 drugs, three trade sources said, despite pressure to make an exception to improve access to drugs for poorer countries.

Supporters of the waiver say existing intellectual property (IP) rules create barriers on access to affordable medicines and vaccines and they want restrictions to be eased, as they were during the AIDS epidemic.

But opposition from the European Union, the United States and some other wealthy nations at a meeting on Friday, means the proposal set to go before the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Council next month is likely to fail.

“If rich countries prefer profits to life, they will kill it by tying it down in technicalities.” said a delegate supporting the motion who attended the closed-door meeting.

The 164-member WTO body usually has to agree by consensus unless members agree to proceed to a vote, which is exceptional.

A second trade source said developing countries denied that IP rights were creating barriers, saying their suspension, “was not only unnecessary but would also undermine the collaborative efforts to fight the pandemic that are already under way”.

Diplomatic missions for the United States and the EU in Geneva did not immediately provide a comment.

The proposal was first raised by India and South Africa in October. Since then, China, which has five COVID-19 vaccine candidates in late-stage trials, has voiced its support, as have dozens of other WTO members, mostly from developing countries.

The World Health Organization says it supports tackling barriers to access to COVID-19 medicines, as does Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, selected by a panel to be the WTO’s next director-general.

Lobbying outside the global trade body has also intensified.

This week, more than 100 civil society organisations wrote to EU lawmakers urging them to back the waiver.

French medical charity MSF’s senior legal and policy officer Yuanquiong Hu said recent positive data from COVID-19 vaccine trials by U.S. pharmaceutical firms added to the urgency of the waiver proposal.

“There is a hierarchical model and the poorer countries are being asked to take the leftovers,” she said. (Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by David Clarke)

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