New head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala requested tripling of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing on March 1st, 2021. According to Reuters, she urged pharmaceutical companies to boost production so that developing countries can effectively combat the virus. “People are dying in poor countries,” says the WTO chief, who was confirmed last month. While the world’s current production limit is 3.5 million doses, Okonjo-Iweala aspires to manufacture 10 billion. A campaign spearheaded by South Africa and India demands that intellectual property rights of COVID-19 drugs be more accessible, but the United States, European Union, and other powerful nations oppose publicization of the vaccine, says Reuters. As the pandemic remains a global struggle, many believe the cure should be more accessible and companies should broaden their scope outside of wealthy countries.
While a veto by the Trump administration derailed her campaign, 66-year old Okonjo-Iweala has finally stepped in as head of the WTO, ending a six month leadership void. The former Nigerian finance and foreign minister is also the first female and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization, which encompasses 164 member states. BBC News says Nigerian women’s activist Josephine EffaH-Chukwuma is grateful that “a woman in a patriarchal and misogynistic country like Nigeria could hold her own and perform creditably contrary to what detractors thought.” Upon arriving at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters, Okonjo-Iweala tells a reporter she is “ready to go” and hopeful for the future of international relations. Reuters reports her concerns that “the world was leaving the WTO behind,” but also her pride in joining such an influential institution. “We have a lot of work to do,” says the new chief, especially in upcoming negotiations with manufacturers.
Wealthy countries tend to gatekeep health initiatives such as the COVID-19 vaccine. However, as the coronavirus pandemic remains a global battle, vulnerable populations must be able to access quality medical resources to protect their populations. Chief Okonjo-Iweala plays a critical role in encouraging companies to boost production. Because the WTO head holds little executive power, Reuters says that some analysts doubt her potential to “revive the body in the face of so many challenges, including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.” Though the organization was “paralyzed” under the Trump administration, the world should remain confident in the WTO’s capabilities under new leadership. International communication must continue to promote a swift end to the pandemic for not only wealthy countries but poor countries who lack resources.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala boasts an impressive resume of international relations that she will apply to her role at the WTO. The Harvard-educated development economist told BBC that it cannot be “business as usual” for the WTO, and that it requires a “shake-up” and “someone willing to do the reforms and lead.” Okonjo-Iweala made impressive strides during her twenty-five years at the World Bank, in which she piloted several initiatives to financially assist developing countries. According to BBC, she also takes great pride in salvaging Nigeria’s economy by relieving the country of $18 billion worth of debt in 2005. The WTO chief is quick to crack down on corrupt corporations, hence her adamant demands to vaccine manufacturers.
Director-General Okonjo-Iweala outlines her initial goal as containing the global pandemic and bolstering worldwide vaccine distribution. While even wealthy nations like the United States struggle in vaccine rollout, UNICEF reported that 130 countries are “yet to administer a single dose” as of February 14th. With only a few pharmaceutical successes in creating the vaccine, doses are scarce. Not only is the world struggling to meet demand, but it is unclear whether approved vaccines will work against new variants that have surfaced, says National Public Radio (NPR). South Africa reported a delay to vaccination programs after a study revealed the ineffectiveness of the AstraZeneca shot against infections of common variants. Other parts of the world, including much of Latin America, are banking on ample doses of AstraZeneca, but the rollout process have proved to be strenuous. According to NPR, World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan states that “it’s not just AstraZeneca products that are less effective against the new mutant strains.” As the world combats COVID-19 mutations and struggles with vaccines, the WTO makes clear their goals for future global relations.
Chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala faces daunting tasks amidst a rampant global pandemic. While her demand for tripling of vaccine production appears radical, it is necessary to mitigate deaths and economic struggles stemming from COVID-19. To work toward greater vaccine distribution, the WTO must regain its strength and stimulate productive conversations.
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