Geneva, 21 April 2021 – Ahead of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on Thursday to discuss a proposal to waive certain intellectual property on COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) commended a recent statement by the new WTO General Director Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, calling on governments to move forward with negotiations on the landmark proposal initially made by India and South Africa last year. As COVID-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe, MSF urged all governments to act in solidarity and support, or at least not block, this crucial proposal.
MSF also acknowledged the statement last week by United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai, which stressed that the ‘significant inequities we are seeing in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries are completely unacceptable’ and that mistakes that resulted in ‘unnecessary deaths and suffering’ during the HIV/AIDS epidemic cannot be repeated. While the US is yet to clarify if it has changed its position on the ‘TRIPS waiver’ proposal, the statement recognised that WTO rules may need to be adapted in order to seek a breakthrough in this time of crisis. The US statement stood in stark contrast to the European Commission's that spoke in favour of a status quo on trade rules.
“In this COVID-19 pandemic, we are once again faced with issues of scarcity, which can be addressed through diversification of manufacturing and supply capacity and ensuring the temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property,” said Dr Maria Guevara, MSF’s International Medical Secretary. “We urge all countries in opposition to this, including the US and the EU, to stand on the right side of history and join hands with those in support. It is about saving lives at the end, not protecting systems.”
The landmark ‘TRIPS waiver’ proposal was originally put forward by India and South Africa in October 2020, and is now officially backed by 59 sponsoring governments, with around 100 countries supporting overall. But six months on—and following dozens of statements by supporting governments emphasising its urgency and importance—the proposal continues to be stonewalled by a small number of governments.
Meanwhile, as Brazil, India and other countries struggle with massive COVID-19 surges, the growing number of affected people requiring medical care is putting immense pressure on public health systems and existing medical supplies. It is critical to ensure any country grappling with the pandemic will be able to readily access all existing and future COVID-19 medical tools in sufficient quantities and in a timely way.
Several potentially promising medicines for COVID-19 prevention and treatment are currently in clinical trials, and if proven effective, could be a critical part of the ongoing response to the pandemic, especially in light of the slow and unequal global vaccine rollout and the emergence of virus variants. However, even during the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations continue to maintain their standard practice of rigid control over intellectual property rights, and MSF’s analysis shows that they have filed patent claims over the past year for several medicines that are under development for COVID-19 treatment.
The waiver, if adopted, could provide countries with new options to address legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede production and supply of COVID-19 medical products in advance, rather than waiting for barriers to hit and then scramble for actions.
“We have learned the hard lessons of the past of having to take a country-by-country and product-by-product approach of removing intellectual property barriers impeding access to lifesaving treatments; it is not sufficient and doesn't provide no expeditious option for this global pandemic,” said Dr Márcio da Fonseca, Infectious Disease Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “At a time when more than three million lives have already been lost to COVID-19, we urge countries to take all possible measures, including supporting this waiver, to be able to protect everyone, everywhere during this pandemic.”
MSF recently joined more than 200 civil society organisations in an open letter to the WTO Director General and members, highlighting the limitations of voluntary licensing and the existing WTO trade rules, stressing the urgent need for the waiver proposal to be adopted.
“It’s time to empower governments by offering all possible policy options that will give them the best chance at dealing with this pandemic and protecting their people,” said Guevara.