MSF urges rich countries to back COVID vaccine patent waiver
International medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has urged rich countries to stop blocking a patent waiver plan that could boost the global production of coronavirus vaccines, Trend reports citing Al Jazeera.
Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will meet virtually for informal talks on Thursday to discuss a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for producing COVID-19 vaccines and other coronavirus-related medical tools for the duration of the pandemic.
Sponsors of the waiver argue that the temporary suspension would allow more factories worldwide to produce jabs without breaking international rules under the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
But the proposal, originally submitted in October by India and South Africa, has met staunch opposition from several high-income members, many of which are home to major drug-makers – such as the United States and members of the European Union.
In a statement on Wednesday, Dr Maria Guevara, MSF’s international medical secretary, called on the opponents to drop their opposition to the plan.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Opponents want to maintain the trade secrets of vaccines, claiming that current WTO rules are already flexible enough to support global vaccine supply. They have also argued that suspending IP rights would jeopardise innovation by discouraging future investments.
With a new round of meetings approaching, including a formal TRIPS Council gathering planned for April 30 and a TRIPS General Council due in June, supporters of the waiver hope that WTO members will move from theoretical reasoning into text-based negotiations.
“If we can get that by the next General Council meeting, it would be better than nothing, even if we are already six months late,” said Tahir Amin co-founder and co-executive director of I-MAK, a global non-profit organisation advocating for equitable access to medicines. “It would show that we turned a corner,” he added.
However, Amin argued, opponents would likely continue to play a “waiting game” and seek to reduce the mounting pressure by pushing more drug companies to strike additional bilateral agreements.
“Pressure is building, but opposing countries will not want to get into text-based discussion – they don’t want to open that door, not even the window,” said Amin.
Questions loom about the position of the US, a heavyweight whose action would influence the outcome of the negotiations. Last week, US Trade Representative Kathrine Tai acknowledged the need for “breakthroughs” at the WTO. Some observers noted the comments were a stark contrast to the previous administration’s language on intellectual property rights.
Tai also stressed that there should not be a repetition of the “unnecessary deaths and suffering” during the HIV/AIDS epidemic caused by “policies and actions that constrained access to medicines”.
In the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was at its peak, millions of people in the developing world died without access to necessary drugs that were available on the market but were prohibitively expensive due to patent rules.
“Politically it (Tai’s statement) was a very positive sign, even though it is unclear how this would translate in the actual approach,” said Yuanqiong Hu, legal adviser for the Access Campaign for MSF.