Vaccines give Okonjo-Iweala a way to put WTO back on the map

New Nigerian boss in Geneva wants a deal on medicine access by November.

Vaccines give Okonjo-Iweala a way to put WTO back on the map

A global spat over coronavirus vaccines is giving World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala a rare opportunity to give her badly wounded organization a road back to relevance.

And by the WTO’s often glacial pace of working, she’s giving herself an ultra tight deadline of November to oversee a deal on vaccine access and prove that the Geneva-based body is still a player in global trade.

The WTO seemed to have lost its raison d’être when the Trump administration essentially paralyzed the trade body’s supreme court in 2019, refusing to approve the appointment of new judges because Washington argued the body had too much power in overruling national laws.

There is now, however, an issue that has put the WTO right back in the limelight. India and South Africa have spearheaded a push that Big Pharma companies should waive patents to allow for the greater rollout of medicines to fight the pandemic. The new U.S. administration of Joe Biden has thrown its weight behind such a move for COVID-19 vaccines, although the EU remains resolutely opposed.

Okonjo-Iweala is sensing her moment.

“We can’t have low ambition anymore because really, this is about people,” Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview with POLITICO. “We must get the negotiations on health done as quickly as we can, because it’s about lives.” 

The real test for whether her fast-track approach works will be if all countries can “hammer out an agreement that will allow developing countries access … so they don’t have to go … product by product, but at the same time, respects and incentivizes research and development” for vaccines. If such a text were agreed upon by all countries at the November conference of ministers, that would “break all records” for negotiating at the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala observed.

But that’s still months away. For a meaningful increase in production sooner, she wants Big Pharma to step up to the plate.

Her so-called “third way” for getting vaccines to the world more quickly is “not waiting, but focusing on ramping up production and for [pharmaceutical companies] to move quickly instead of resisting,” she said. “They need to be going in and putting their hands up and saying … ‘we are ready to work with you in Bangladesh, we are ready to work in Pakistan.'”

Depicting such partnerships as a commercial win-win, she added: “Big Pharma could also win if they moved quickly.”

Okonjo-Iweala, who was twice Nigeria’s finance minister, said that some developing countries had already come forward with the capacity to produce the precious jabs during the vaccine summit she convened last month. Specifically, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Africa and Senegal said they had facilities that could be retooled. “We urge the manufacturers to take an honest look, and to see if we can match them … so that they can turn around [those facilities] in the next six to nine months,” she said. 

When people are dying in a country, “it’s politically … untenable” for a leader to say they are exporting vaccines, she said, pointing to the situation in India. The lesson from this is to distribute manufacturing capacity better. “It’s anomalous that a continent — Africa — with 1.3 billion people, it has 0.17 percent of the manufacturing capacity, imports 99 percent of its vaccines, and 90 percent of its pharmaceuticals,” she said.

So in the short to medium term, Okonjo-Iweala said she expected vaccine manufacturers to move into developing countries’ markets. “Manufacturers should … ramp up production, give the licenses so we can get on with it.”

And reaching an international agreement to ramp up vaccine production by November won’t be too late to save lives during this pandemic, according to Okonjo-Iweala: “We’re going to need 10 to 15 billion doses a year, and we’ve only been able to manufacture 5 billion.” 

“I was chair of GAVI [the global vaccine alliance] for six years … I actually know something about this business … so even if we get it [an agreement] by the end of the year, I think that will still be very useful,” Okonjo-Iweala added.

Some observers used to the WTO’s more customary timeframes say that wanting all this to happen in record time, alongside resolving intractable WTO negotiations — such as the 20-year fisheries subsidies stand-off — is impatient of her. “I am impatient,” she admits. But then again, “if we don’t do that, how are we going to get some successes? I’m not saying all of it is going to work, but I’m going to give it a dang good try.”

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‘Armored Marian’ — the man who has Poland’s Law and Justice party in his sights

Former party loyalist Marian Banaś is now a thorn in the side of the government.

‘Armored Marian’ — the man who has Poland’s Law and Justice party in his sights

WARSAW — The biggest danger to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party doesn’t comes from the hapless opposition parties.

Rather, it’s from Marian Banaś, a compact 65-year-old karate black belt who heads the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) and who has unleashed his inspectors against key government officials.

In response, the government-controlled anti-corruption police (CBA) is probing Banaś’s personal wealth after a building he owns was reportedly used as a brothel. Earlier this month, CBA agents conducted a raid on his son’s address.

Speaking to POLITICO, Banaś called the allegations as a “smear campaign” aimed at ousting him from his role as a watchdog of state bodies.

From a conference room behind two sets of locked doors at the stately NIK headquarters in Warsaw, he detailed how for more than two years he and his family have been spied on by around 50 anti-corruption agents. 

“This reminds me of Bolshevik methods,” he said, recalling the surveillance tools used by the communist secret police in the 1980s. Banaś, an activist in the anti-communist underground, was imprisoned in the early 1980s for his work with the Solidarity labor union.

Banaś’s role as one of the leading enemies of the government is something of a surprise both to him and to the party that nominated him to his six-year term as NIK chief in 2019. Long associated with the nationalist and conservative right, Banaś was once a tried-and-tested asset of PiS and first got top jobs during the party’s brief stint in power from 2005 to 2007, returning when PiS won power again in 2015.

He served as finance minister under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki before moving to NIK — one of the country’s most powerful institutions that’s supposed to be used to keep an eye on public spending. However, Law and Justice has steadily eroded most checks and balances on its power, staffing top courts, control bodies and the state media with loyalists.

The problem for PiS is that Banaś refuses to play along.

Attacking the auditor

Immediately after his appointment, media reported that a building he owns in the southern city of Kraków was being used as a by-the-hour hotel run by a person with underworld links. Anti-corruption authorities launched a probe and Banaś went on a leave of absence.

At the same time, authorities uncovered a VAT fraud scheme being run out of the finance ministry, with one of the accused being a close associate of Banaś when he was the minister. The allegations tarnished the ruling party ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election.

In response, PiS tried to get Banaś to quit — with even party chief and Poland’s de facto ruler Jarosław Kaczyński putting pressure on him to go. Because the six-year-term of the NIK boss is written into the constitution, PiS mulled changing the rules to oust him.

But Banaś — whose nickname is ‘”armored Marian,” comparing him to a tank that steadily crushes all opposition in his way — dug in his heels and refused to quit.

“When I was chosen as head of NIK, I immediately became uncomfortable,” said Banaś. He said state services soon had him down as “even dangerous.”

Banaś denies any wrongdoing. “There are no legal proceedings against me … And that is the best proof that I am innocent, and that all this commotion … is a cunning PR move to destroy my profile and name.”

His predecessor, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, a former Polish justice minister and chief prosecutor who is now an independent senator, said he is “surprised” that after almost three years of the investigation “dragging on,” it hasn’t led to either an indictment or to the case being dropped and that there is “no resolution in sight.”

“The issue gives the impression of seeking to influence the president [of NIK],” he said.

A spokesperson for Poland’s anti-corruption body (CBA) said that prosecutors were conducting “preparatory proceedings” in the case of how Banaś acquired earnings and property. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, tensions escalated again when CBA agents staged a second raid on the chief auditor’s son, Jakub Banaś. His father called the search a “retaliation” for a smoking-gun audit of last year’s abandoned presidential vote.

Last year, the government tried to hold the election in May, despite worries about the pandemic. When it became clear that in-person voting would be too dangerous, the government decided to hold a postal-only vote. It spent millions on postal ballots, despite having passed no law to actually hold such an election. In the end, the election was shifted to July and the postal ballots were junked; so far no official has been held responsible for spending the money without authorization.

Last year a court in Warsaw ruled that Morawiecki committed “gross violation of the law” when ordering preparations for an all-postal vote before relevant legislation was passed by parliament.

NIK is now also weighing in. Leaked extracts of its report, which is due to be unveiled on Thursday, suggest that senior figures in government are to blame for wasting almost 133 million zloty (€29 million) on the canceled vote. 

The interior ministry, which oversees the CBA, denied any “political motivations” in raiding Banaś’s son just one day after leaks and said that the operation had already been in the works. 

“Incredible coincidence, don’t you think?” asked Banaś, who believes his family is being targeted to pressure him into resigning. “In my opinion, CBA has long ceased to be an institution which goes after corrupt officials. Increasingly, it has started taking part in show trials, with mixed results.”

Radosław Fogiel, a ruling party spokesperson, warned Banaś to “weigh his words,” while another called his accusations “simply untrue.”

Opposition politicians have cast the conflict as a power game within the ruling camp. Earlier this month, Cezary Tomczyk, the chairman of the parliamentary club of the Civic Coalition party, said the scrap was “a war of gangs” and “the activity of a mafia state.” 

More in the pipeline

Banaś has even more pain in store for PiS.

NIK is taking on the Polish National Foundation, a body tasked with promoting Poland abroad that is lavishly financed by state-controled companies; it has been criticized for squandering funds on ineffective and politically charged media campaigns.

When the foundation refused to hand over paperwork — claiming it is “a private entity” — NIK last month notified prosecutors of a potential crime of obstructing justice. “We cannot allow such an explanation … to hinder our audit work,” said Banaś. 

Kwiatkowski said the foundation’s refusal to cooperate is “absolutely unacceptable” and could set a “worrying” precedent for the audit office’s work.

NIK is also looking into the government’s handling of the pandemic, including how it spent over 150 billion złoty to bolster the economy during lockdowns.

Auditors plan to comb through the government’s post-pandemic National Recovery Plan for spending funds from the EU’s recovery fund, which Warsaw has submitted to Brussels.

“It seems that the most interesting topics are still ahead of us,” said Kwiatkowski, who noted that NIK is currently reviewing the €283 million outlay on what was supposed to be Poland’s last coal-fired power plant. Soaring carbon emissions prices and the reluctance of banks to lend for such a scheme forced its cancellation, and it’s now being disassembled.

“Already we can say that the money was being spent in an unreasonable way,” said Kwiatkowski. “The audit will now show who is responsible.” 

Banaś insists he’s not going away. “When it comes to our audit work, I haven’t said my last word yet.”


For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.

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