The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has urged rich countries to stop blocking a patent waiver scheme that could boost the production of coronavirus vaccines globally.
World Trade Organization (WTO) members will meet for informal talks on Thursday to discuss a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and other coronavirus-related medical equipment throughout the pandemic.
Sponsors of the waiver argue that the suspension would allow more factories worldwide to produce injections without violating international rules under a World Trade Organization agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
But the proposal, originally submitted in October by India and South Africa, has met with strong opposition from several high-income members, many of whom 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 opponents to drop their opposition to the plan.
“In this COVID-19 pandemic, we are again facing shortage issues, which can be addressed by diversifying manufacturing and supply capacity and securing the temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property,” he said.
“We urge all opposing countries, including the US and the EU, to stand on the right side of history and join hands with supporters. It’s about saving lives at the end, not protecting systems. ”
Opponents want to uphold the secrets of vaccine trade, claiming that current World Trade Organization rules are already sufficiently flexible to support global vaccine supply. They have also argued that suspending IP rights would jeopardize innovation by encouraging future investments.
With a new round of meetings approaching, including a formal meeting of the TRIPS Council planned for April 30 and the General Council of TRIPS in June, supporters of the waiver hope that members of the World Trade Organization will move from theoretical reasoning to text discussions.
“If we can get that by the next General Council meeting, it would be better, even if we’re already six months late,” said co-founder Tahir Amin and co-executive director of I-MAK, a global non-profit company is a for-profit organization that advocates for equitable access to medicines. “It would show that we have turned a corner,” he added.
However, Amin argued, opponents would likely continue to play a “waiting game” and try to ease the growing pressure by pushing more drug companies to strike additional bilateral agreements.
“Pressure is increasing, but opposing countries won’t want to start a text-based debate – they don’t want to open that door, not even the window,” said Amin.
Questions abound about the US position, a heavy weight whose action would influence the outcome of the negotiations. Last week, US Trade Representative Kathrine Tai acknowledged the need for “developments” at the World Trade Organization. Some observers noted that the comments were in stark contrast to the language of the previous administration on intellectual property rights.
Housing also stressed that the “unnecessary deaths and suffering” during the HIV / AIDS epidemic caused by “policies and actions that restricted access to medicines” should not be repeated.
In the 1990s, at the height of the HIV / AIDS crisis, millions of people died in the developing world without access to necessary drugs that were available on the market but were too expensive because of patent rules.
“Politically (the Housing statement) was a very positive sign, although it is unclear how this would translate into the actual approach,” said Yuanqiong Hu, legal adviser for the Access Campaign for MSF.
Lack of vaccine
One year into the pandemic, one in four people in rich countries have been vaccinated, compared with one in 500 in low-income nations, according to WHO estimates.
In a further blow to the global roll-out of vaccines, India decided in early April to temporarily suspend exports of the AstraZeneca from the Serum Institute – the world’s largest injection manufacturer – to meet domestic demands amid a steep surge in infections among 1.4 billion people the country.
AstraZeneca’s injection, which is relatively cheap and easy to store, is key to developing countries vaccination efforts and is a major supplier of COVAX – a United Nations-backed global mechanism that seeks to guarantee free vaccines for the poorest countries.
The decision was expected to disrupt more than 90 million doses that were due to COVAX, a result that Africa’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong defined as “catastrophic”.
Most African countries have relied on doses provided by the global platform, but less than 1 percent of the continent’s population has received a single dose of vaccine, according to Our World in Data. In contrast, the United Kingdom has given at least one shot to nearly half of its population, compared to nearly 40 percent of people in the US and more than 19 percent in the EU.
Sponsors of the waiver have argued that the disruption to vaccine supplies caused by India’s decision to suspend exports highlights the limits of the current method of vaccine production, centered largely on single voluntary agreements managed by corporate rights holders retains full control over the use of its technology, production volume and prices.
“The deal between AstraZeneca and the SII shows a flow in the current way in which a vaccine is accessed as it is one unique deal on which billions of people rely,” said Sangeeta Shashikant, legal adviser on for the Third World Network, an international advocacy organization.
Meanwhile, the pressure is increasing from civil society as well. Last week, more than 170 former heads of state and government, as well as Nobel lawmakers, urged US President Joseph Biden to support the proposed TRIPS waiver.
The letter followed suit from civil society organizations, including Amnesty and MSF, emphasizing how the current model cannot guarantee sustainability.