Médecins Sans Frontières Intervention at the World Trade Organization-World Health Organization High-Level Dialogue on Expanding COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing to Promote Equitable Access
21 July 2021
Delivered by Leena Menghaney, South Asia Head, MSF Access Campaign
DG WTO and WHO thank you for the opportunity to discuss these important issues impacting millions of people’s right to health.
I am a woman of colour and have worked as a lawyer from New Delhi for over 15 years with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to increase access to medicines, diagnostics and vaccines in MSF’s medical projects and communities in developing countries. In countries where MSF works, COVID-19 cases are climbing, and millions of lives are at stake. This global health crisis is deepening inequality of access to prevention and treatment, particularly among marginalised populations.
Although this event considers vaccines, we also need to urgently address gaps for other medical products. In India I have witnessed people struggle to access oxygen and medicines. In India in April this year I first hand witnessed shortages of tocilizumab needed for severe COVID-19 and liposomal amphotericin B for mucormycosis. The shortages and high prices for these medicines are largely caused by monopolies. Even during a global pandemic, a handful of wealthy governments continue to allow their monopoly-holding corporations to control how much will be produced, set prices and decide where lifesaving medical products are produced, registered and supplied.
We have heard enough political rhetoric, like support for the COVAX Facility and about bilateral deals. Neither of these are enough. Yet, only 1% of people in low-income countries have received a dose of COVID-19 vaccines.
Many proposals that could help are stalled by inaction. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations rejects voluntary sharing initiatives like WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. Members of IFPMA favour bilateral deals to avoid disclosing terms and conditions, and even in the most vibrant democracies freedom to information requests are met with redacted agreements that undermine accountability and transparency.
WHO’s mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub could expand production and supply of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Yet BioNTech, Pfizer and Moderna – makers of WHO-approved mRNA vaccines – have not participated. Governments like Germany and the US that fund and host major biopharmaceutical developers must use their influence to push companies to participate in the WHO mRNA hub.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS waiver is a critical policy proposal to remove legal barriers to increase production and supply of COVID-19 medical products including much needed drugs for treatment. Yet the European Union, the UK and Switzerland, continue to delay negotiations of the waiver. Instead, the European Union has put forward a particularly harmful proposal that does not overcome the limitations of current WTO rules.
Developing countries have used some of these measures. When India used compulsory licensing to reduce prices of an exorbitantly priced patented cancer drug, it was heavily criticized and met with the Bayer CEO’s response saying that the company did not develop the cancer medicine for Indians, effectively summed up everything that was wrong with the way medical products including for COVID-19 are developed. Reserved for the wealthiest, with pharmaceutical corporations singularly focused on profits, pushing for intellectual property and high prices.
CEOs of pharma corporations in the previous session attributed the speedy development of COVID-19 vaccines to the IP system, discounting the contribution of public funding, people’s volunteering in clinical trials and regulatory support.
Millions of people are still waiting to benefit from the important medical innovations of the past year and half, and the intellectual property is deepening social and racial injustice across the world.