Okonjo-Iweala Starts Job As WTO Head By Warning Against Vaccine Nationalism

Newly-appointed head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has told the BBC that vaccine protectionism must be overcome to solve the pandemic.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said “a phenomenon where rich countries are vaccinating their populations and poor countries have to wait” must be avoided.

In recent weeks, several countries have tried to prevent the export of vaccines made within their borders.

But Dr Okonjo-Iweala said protectionism would hinder a global recovery.

“The nature of the pandemic and the mutation of many variants makes this such that no one country can feel safe until every country has taken precautions to vaccinate its population,” she said.

Until the end of last year Dr Okonjo-Iweala chaired the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, which aims to increase access to vaccines around the world and she now says the WTO has crucial work to do in this area.

There is an ongoing debate about relaxing WTO rules on intellectual property so that more drug manufacturers can make the jabs. Dr Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that whilst “some developing countries are asking for waivers, developed countries feel that this might impinge on intellectual property”.

But she argues for “a third way, in which we can licence manufacturing to countries so that you can have adequate supplies while still making sure that intellectual property issues are taken care of”.

That is already happening with the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine, which has been licenced to the Serum Institute of India.

While the pandemic is the most pressing challenge facing the WTO’s new leader, it is not the only one.

The organisation is in a fight for relevance in the eyes of many countries that consider its rules outdated and believe that the organisation itself has been slow to adapt to changes in the global economy.

After a selection process which was dragged out by a lack of support from the administration of former US President Donald Trump, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is mindful of what her victory represents.

“I’m proud to be the first woman and the first African,” she said.