Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Remarks at the WTO Virtual Conference on COVID-19 Vaccine Equity

April 14, 2021

WASHINGTON – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today delivered remarks at the opening session of the World Trade Organization (WTO) virtual conference titled “COVID-19 and vaccine equity: what can the WTO contribute?" In her remarks, Ambassador Tai stressed the need for extraordinary leadership during this extraordinary time and emphasized her commitment to finding solutions that address the gaping divide between developed and developing countries when it comes to access to medicines.

The full text of Ambassador Tai’s remarks is below:

I would like to thank Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for her initiative to convene this meeting, and for bringing together this group of important stakeholders.

I am also glad to see Minister Goyal of India, EVP Dombrovskis of the EU, and Minister Patel of South Africa today.  I have had a chance already to have very meaningful preliminary conversations with each of you.  I am committed to finding ways to partner with you on the issues before us today and more broadly.

Humanity is facing a public health and economic crisis that we continue to struggle to manage and overcome.  For more than a year now, we have all been straining to manage virus transmission and treat those afflicted.  We have scrambled for limited supplies of masks, gloves, and therapies.  We have pushed ourselves and each other to produce more and share more.  

Now we find ourselves in a new phase of the effort with the arrival of some of the most promising tools for bringing the virus to heel:  vaccines.  And unsurprisingly, we are beset again by difficulty in production, supply, and equitable distribution.

I come to this meeting today with heartfelt compassion for the frontline workers who have had to assume greater risks of exposure and infection in order to earn their paychecks.  There are millions of families worldwide grieving for the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, including mine.  And just as many, if not more, who have suffered the loss of their livelihoods.

These losses have been disproportionately borne by vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities within our countries.  And the significant inequities we are seeing in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries are completely unacceptable.

Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership, communication, and creativity.  Extraordinary crises challenge all of us to break out of our comfortable molds, our in-the-box thinking, our instinctive habits.  

This is not just a challenge for governments.  This challenge applies equally to the industry responsible for developing and manufacturing the vaccines.

The desperate needs that our people face in the current pandemic provide these companies with an opportunity to be the heroes they claim to be – and can be.  As governments and leaders of international institutions, the highest standards of courage and sacrifice are demanded of us in times of crisis.  The same needs to be demanded of industry.

There is still a gaping divide between developed and developing countries when it comes to access to medicines.    

We saw this during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where various policies and actions constrained access to medicines, contributing to unnecessary deaths and suffering.  We must learn from, and not repeat, the tragedies and mistakes of the past.

The Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, for example, was born out of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and we all – both in government and in the private sector – need to do our parts to live up to its spirit.

But there are many aspects of the institution of the WTO and its rules that have not adapted to a changed world, a changed membership, changed practices and expectations. We must ensure that this time of crisis and suffering leads to breakthroughs and progress.

We hope to hear more today about how the market once again has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries.  As part of that we have to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary to reflect what we have learned.

Let’s motivate to seize the opportunities presented now to take a renewed look at reforming the WTO, and enable it to be a force to bring about a better and fairer world.