The international medical association Médecins Sans Frontières (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF) has urged rich countries to stop blocking a patent waiver plan that could boost global production of coronavirus vaccines.
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 the production of COVID-19 vaccines and other coronavirus-related medical tools throughout the duration of the pandemic.
Proponents of the waiver argue that the temporary suspension would allow more factories around the world to produce jabs without violating 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 fierce opposition from several high-income members, many of whom are home to major drugmakers – 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 resolved by diversifying manufacturing and supply capacity and ensuring the temporary relinquishment of relevant intellectual property,” said she declared.
“We urge all countries that oppose this, including the US and the EU, to stand on the right side of history and join with those who support us. It’s about saving lives in the end, not protecting systems. “
Opponents want to preserve vaccine trade secrets, saying current WTO rules are already flexible enough to support the global vaccine supply. They also argued that the suspension of intellectual property rights would undermine innovation by discouraging future investment.
With a new round of meetings approaching, including a formal TRIPS Council meeting scheduled for April 30 and a General TRIPS Council scheduled for June, supporters of the waiver hope WTO members will move on. from theoretical reasoning to text-based negotiations.
“If we can get this by the next General Council meeting, it would be better than nothing, even though we are already six months behind,” said Tahir Amin, co-founder and co-executive director of I- MAK, a for-profit organization promoting 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 seek to ease the growing pressure by pushing more drug companies to enter into additional bilateral deals.
“The pressure is mounting, but the opposing countries won’t want to enter a text-based discussion – they don’t want to open that door, not even the window,” Amin said.
Questions arise about the position of the United States, a heavyweight whose action would influence the outcome of the negotiations. Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Kathrine Tai recognized the need for “breakthroughs” at the WTO. Some observers noted that the comments contrasted sharply with the wording of the previous administration on intellectual property rights.
Tai also stressed that there should not be a repeat of “unnecessary death and suffering” during the HIV / AIDS epidemic caused by “policies and actions that have restricted 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, this (Tai’s statement) was a very positive sign, although it is not clear how it would translate into the real approach,” said Yuanqiong Hu, legal advisor for the access campaign for MSF.
One year after the start of the pandemic, one in four people in wealthy countries has been vaccinated, against one in 500 in low-income countries, according to WHO estimates.
Another blow to global vaccine deployments, India decided in early April to temporarily halt exports of AstraZeneca from the Serum Institute – the world’s largest manufacturer of jabs – to meet domestic demand amid a surge. infections among the country’s 1.4 billion people.
The AstraZeneca jab, which is relatively inexpensive and easy to store, is key to developing country immunization efforts and is a major supplier of COVAX – a UN-backed global mechanism that aims to secure vaccines free to the poorest countries.
The move was expected to disrupt more than 90 million doses for COVAX, a result which the director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, called “catastrophic.”
Most African countries have relied on doses delivered by the global platform, but less than 1% of the continent’s population has received a single dose of vaccine, according to Our World in Data. In contrast, the UK has given at least one injection to almost half of its population, compared to almost 40 percent of the population in the US and over 19 percent in the EU.
Proponents of the waiver argued that the disruption in vaccine supplies caused by India’s decision to halt exports highlights the limitations of the current approach to vaccine production, which mainly centers around single voluntary agreements. controlled by corporate rights holders who maintain full control over the use of its technology, production volume and prices.
“The deal between AstraZeneca and the IBS shows a flow in the way vaccine access is currently being approached as it is an exclusive deal that billions of people depend on,” said Sangeeta Shashikant, legal advisor to the SII. Third World Network, an international organization. advocacy organization.
Meanwhile, pressure from civil society is also increasing. Last week, more than 170 former heads of state and government, along with the Nobel Prize winners, urged US President Joseph Biden to support the proposed TRIPS waiver.
The letter came after another from civil society organizations, including Amnesty and MSF, stressing that the current model cannot guarantee sustainability.