Will IPRs restrict access to Covid Vaccine?

On 19th November 2020 – ahead of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks to consider a landmark request to waive certain intellectual property rights(IPR) during the COVID-19 pandemic— put forward by India and South Africa in October— Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called all governments to support this game-changing step. The IPR waiver would allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other IPRs related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic until global herd immunity is achieved. This move harkens back 20 years to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when affordable generic HIV drugs, made in countries where patents did not block production, began saving millions of people’s lives.

“Not even a global pandemic can stop pharmaceutical corporations from following their business-as-usual approach, so countries need to use every tool available to make sure that COVID-19 medical products are accessible and affordable for everyone who needs them,” said Dr. Sidney Wong, Executive Co-Director of MSF’s Access Campaign. “All COVID-19 health tools and technologies should be true global public goods, free from the barriers that patents and other intellectual property impose. We’re calling on all governments to urgently throw their support behind this groundbreaking proposal that puts human lives over corporate profits at this critical moment for global health.”

Since the start of the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations have maintained their standard practice of rigid control over intellectual property rights, while pursuing secretive and monopolistic commercial deals that exclude many developing countries from benefitting. For example, Gilead entered into restrictive bilateral licensing for one of the only drugs to have shown potential benefit to treat COVID-19, Remdesivir, excluding nearly half of the world’s population from benefitting from price-lowering generic competition.

Additionally, several new and repurposed medicines and monoclonal antibodies being trialled as promising treatments for COVID-19 are already patented in many developing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, China and Malaysia. And with the exception of one company, none of the COVID-19 vaccine developers have committed to treating IP any differently than the status quo. While some corporations have taken steps through licensing and technology transfer deals to use existing global manufacturing capacity to try and mitigate anticipated supply shortages of potentially successful vaccines, this has been the exception, and the licensing deals often come with clear limitations.

Historically, steps have been taken to overcome monopolies that have allowed pharmaceutical corporations to keep prices artificially high. In 2001, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the ‘Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health’ affirmed governments’ rights to take all necessary measures to eliminate patents and other IP barriers, putting governments in the driver’s seat so they can prioritise public health over corporate interests. This current waiver request to the WTO is a similar step to speed up the response to COVID-19.

 “This bold step by governments offers the world a chance to avoid repeating the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic 20 years ago when monopolies on lifesaving treatments saw people in high-income countries get access to HIV medicines while millions in developing countries were left to die,” said Dr Khosi Mavuso, Medical Representative for MSF in South Africa. “Overriding monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools will allow global collaboration to scale-up manufacturing, supply and access for everyone. With more than 1.3 million lives already lost to COVID-19, governments cannot afford to waste any more time waiting for voluntary moves by the pharmaceutical industry.”

At the last WTO meeting of the TRIPS Council (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) on 15/16 October, Kenya and E-swatini joined India and South Africa in officially co-sponsoring the waiver. A total of 99 countries have welcomed and shown support overall. But the waiver proposal is not being supported by multiple wealthy nations, including the US, the UK, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union.

“Governments need to ask themselves which side of history they want to be on when the books on this pandemic are written,” said Wong.

Last month, a landmark proposal was tabled by India and South Africa asking the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a waiver on patents and other intellectual property (IP) related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for the duration of the pandemic. As the WTO is hosting an informal session to discuss this proposal on 20 November 2020, MSF is urging all countries to support this important proposal for no patents on COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic.

This bold step is akin to efforts by governments nearly 20 years ago spearheading the use of affordable generic HIV/AIDS medicines. The formal negotiation process on the waiver proposal provides an important political opportunity to ensure better access to COVID-19 medical tools for developing countries. This groundbreaking proposal, if approved, will allow countries to neither grant nor enforce patents and other intellectual property on COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, vaccines and other technologies during the pandemic. At the last WTO hearing in October, the proposal was supported by many countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, the US, UK, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union could create opposition to the approval of this proposal.

MSF with support of India is launching a campaign to support this important initiative so that more governments get on board to support this request and make it a reality.

Vikash Prakash
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Vikash Prakash studied M.A Development (Public Health) at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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