As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe, the governments of India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organization to waive some provisions in a trade agreement governing intellectual property rights so that medical products can be more easily accessed, especially by low-income countries.
The two countries argued that unless a waiver is issued, there are “significant concerns” that diagnostics, medicines and vaccines will not be “available promptly in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand,” according to a submission filed on Friday with the WTO’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
The move comes as several wealthy nations — notably, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France — have signed deals with various drug makers for hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that are still being tested. But poorer countries lack the means to place such orders and global health officials fear that inequitable access will cause further immeasurable suffering and the coronavirus will not be contained.
“It is crucial that other member governments of the WTO support this as we need to ensure that vaccines, drugs, and other medical tools needed for tackling COVID-19 can be scaled up by countries and their manufacturers without facing protracted negotiations for licenses that in most cases exclude many high burden countries,” said Leena Menghaney, who heads the Doctors Without Borders access campaign in South Asia, in a statement.
Specifically, India and South Africa proposed waiving rules that govern patents, industrial designs, copyrights, and protection of undisclosed information, a reference to trade secrets. They proposed the waiver “should continue until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity to Covid-19,” they wrote in their submission to the WTO.
“Internationally, there is an urgent call for global solidarity, and the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how in order that rapid responses for the handling of Covid-19 can be put in place on a real time basis.” The Indian and South African governments urged the WTO General Council adopt the proposal for an unspecified number of years.
If the WTO issues a waiver, countries around the world “could ignore the WTO rules” and look to manufacture lower-cost products, explained Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group that focuses on access to medicines and patent rights. “They would still have to deal with their local laws, and lack of know-how. But it would be significant, if adopted, for some products.” However, he also noted it may difficult to get the proposal adopted.
The submission occurs as the World Health Organization attempts different mechanisms to ensure greater access to Covid-19 medical products in poor countries.
The WHO is working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Emergency Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, to establish Covax, a vaccine purchasing pool in which 172 countries exchange expertise. The plan is to pool economic resources of its member countries to enable vaccine developers to make high-risk investments and subsidize vaccine costs for lower and middle-income countries. The U.S., however, has not joined.
In July, the Africa Union, which represents dozens of countries, urged its members to work with the WHO to obtain a vaccine, but not let pharmaceutical patents remain an obstacle. The AU called for “equitable and timely distribution” of a Covid-19 vaccine by partnering with Covax, but also suggested its members consider pursuing compulsory licensing, a right that is noted in the same WTO deal.
“This welcome proposal seeks to put the right to health of all people before the profits of a handful of pharmaceutical corporations and should be widely supported,” said Anna Marriott, health policy advisor at Oxfam. “World leaders have said Covid-19 vaccines and treatments must be global public goods but today they remain the private property of pharmaceutical companies. Sharing research and data at this time of unprecedented global crisis is the fastest route to a people’s vaccine and to scale up its production for all.”
The WHO, by the way, also launched a Technology Access Pool, which would collect patent rights, regulatory test data, and other information that could be shared for developing drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to combat Covid-19. However, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations opposes the effort.
This post was updated with comment from OxFam.