Put idle capacity to work now making vaccines, says WTO head

FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled "AstraZeneca, Pfizer - Biontech, Johnson&Johnson, Sputnik V coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine" are seen in this illustration picture
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GENEVA (Reuters) - The world cannot act soon enough to put idle manufacturing capacity to work making COVID-19 vaccines to help redress a massive imbalance in global supply, the head of the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday.

WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatments was "both the moral and economic issue of our time". The World Health Organization said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries.

Okonjo-Iweala told a meeting of the 164-member WTO that those who had ordered more vaccines than they needed must share with others. Members should also address export restrictions and bureaucracy disrupting vital medical supply chains.

She urged governments to work with manufacturers to use production capacity available in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Senegal that could be turned around in a matter of months.

Production needed to rise from the 5 billion doses produced today to the 10.8 billion being forecast for this year to 15 billion, in particular if booster doses would be needed.

The debate on vaccine inequity at the WTO has centred a proposal by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights, at least for the duration of the pandemic.

Ten meetings of WTO members have failed to achieve a breakthrough and Wednesday's online gathering was no different as 42 countries gave their views. However, members also heard that India and South Africa intend to refine their proposal before another discussion later in May.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was happy to hear of the revised text.

"I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward," she said, referring to a balance between developing country demands while protecting research and innovation.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Giles Elgood)