People first

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - March 20, 2021 - 12:00am

The WTO Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council met last week under the leadership of new Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria. The council again tabled the Indian-South African proposal, first advanced last October, for a limited, time bound, emergency permission to waive application of TRIPS rules.

This proposed “Waiver from Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention, Containment and Treatment of COVID-19” would exempt nations and manufacturers from sanctions or international disputes so as to turbo charge poorer nations’ access to vaccines and the sharing of technologies.

Production would have to be at least trebled around the world if we are to attain a modicum of equity in the distribution of vaccines. Multilateral approaches to universal access have become even more urgent. The principle is “vaccines everywhere will crush the virus anywhere.”

Keeping up with the Joneses. Right now, we are just peeking into the windows of rich neighbors as they corner the vaccines. A lot of these rich countries are firmly on the side of big pharma, opposing the waiver. For them, the existential question of upholding a regime of incentivizing research and development efforts that intellectual property (IP) rights protect trumps survival considerations.

Speaking of trumping, the previous US administration stood with the pharmaceutical companies against the waiver. Now 60 congressmen are lobbying for President Joe Biden to express US support for this initiative and navigate the tension between IP protections and public health.

Not throwing away our shot. With self-sufficiency as the narrative, Gen. Carlito Galvez has endorsed to the DOST our local pharmaceutical companies with manufacturing capability to produce up to 100 million doses of vaccines they’re looking to partner with. Already, these companies are exploring with the DTI investment incentives to facilitate the immediate realization of their plans.

India is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. Apart from the deals struck by our governments for the purchase of 30 million doses of Novovax, the Serum Institute of India and our own Vaccine Expert Panel will be partnering for us to manufacture our own doses to guarantee supply and save on costs.

This is no pipe dream as the country had this capability back in 1938, according to the general. We produced our own vaccines for “tropical diseases” and donated the same to other countries, including China. Hence, any initiative to produce locally is categorized as a reactivation of capability.

With the sudden surge in cases this month, this is a discussion we need to be having. Cases are up around the world, with a 10 percent increase last week, according to WHO in all regions. But new deaths are on the decline.

Dry run for 22. As the rest of the country endured the limitations of living with COVID-19, our Palaweño brothers and sisters had to endure a plebiscite on R.A. 11259, the law dividing their province into three.

At day’s end, the people of Palawan voted resoundingly against their public officials. The bill was pushed by the three congressional representatives, endorsed by the Palawan provincial board and backed by the governor himself. It became a law when passed by the Senate and signed by the President.

The margin was not insubstantial. 172,304 as against 122,203 with 60 percent voting. For a pandemic plebiscite, the turnout exceeded the 47 percent expectation. This is a message that the people wanted to send. They did not pass up the opportunity to slap their officials with reality checks.

Directly affected. The law’s constitutionality was challenged in 2020 with the Supreme Court affirming by a vote of 15-0. The main issue was whether the exclusion of the City of Puerto Princesa from the plebiscite was violative of the constitutional command that the same be held in the units “directly affected.”

The Supreme Court record on local self-determination is rather curious. They debuted an interpretation of this constitutional provision back in 2014 on Cabanatuan City’s climb to become a highly urbanized city (HUC). The Court’s reading then virtually embargoed any effort of component cities to seek independence from their mother province.

Congressional intent as expressed in the Local Government Code recognizes the aspiration of cities to improve their station. Pursuant to the policy of local autonomy and the principle of subsidiarity where the unit closest to the people is best positioned to serve, the emancipation of cities is encouraged if they are capable of political and economic independence.

The Court in the Cabanatuan case chose to view such efforts critically, from the viewpoint of what was good for the province. Their interpretation of units “directly affected” in that case was that the whole province should decide on the plebiscite for Cabanatuan’s HUC status. Cabanatuan is the crown jewel of Nueva Ecija, its political and economic center. Should it become highly urbanized, then it becomes independent politically and fiscally with no taxes remitted to the province and no voting for provincial officials. Naturally, any province would oppose the separation of its prize cow, with their far greater voting power. The Court chose to honor provincial integrity over city self-determination, despite the clear congressional preference for the latter.

Let sleeping dogs lie. There was no need for any such analysis for Puerto Princesa as it was already an HUC and independent of the province of Palawan. As such, it had no standing to involve itself in provincial affairs.

The Palawan story tells itself. At bottom, the people’s right to freely enjoy their political status and independence was not respected by their purported leaders. The result of the plebiscite was really just the people showing who was boss.

The new finish line. The Norwegian government, supported by governments and foundations like that of Bill & Melinda Gates, is hosting a global seed vault at the Arctic Svalbard archipelago. The vault preserves duplicate samples of world-wide seed varieties to ensure against their loss during global crises. The University of Arizona has unveiled a plan to build a similar doomsday vault of seed, spore, sperm and egg samples on the Moon as a “genetic back up” for the planet.

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