MSF: Opposing countries must stop blocking negotiations on “TRIPS Waiver” for COVID-19 medical tools

Tackling COVID-19 in Lebanon, through prevention and vaccination

Lebanon 2021 © Tracy Makhlouf/MSF

NEW YORK/GENEVA, JULY 26, 2021—As countries prepare for the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council meeting tomorrow, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging the European Union (EU), Norway, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland to stop stalling the landmark proposal to waive intellectual property (IP)—known as the “TRIPS waiver”—on lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools. These countries must join the more than 100 others, including the US, that support this waiver and engage in formal negotiations to help increase access to COVID-19 medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics, said MSF. This disease has already killed more than 4 million people globally and is increasingly hitting countries across Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

“As many countries in Africa right now are reporting a high number of deaths due to the spread of new and existing variants of COVID-19, these governments are in dire need of vaccines, diagnostics, oxygen, and other treatments to help save lives of critically ill patients,” said Dr. Tom Ellman, director of MSF’s Southern Africa Medical Unit. “While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends two newer therapeutics for patients with severe COVID-19, medical practitioners and their patients in many low- and middle-income countries cannot access them due to monopolies, limited supply, and high prices. It is outrageous to see countries blocking the ‘TRIPS Waiver’ that is desperately needed as an important tool to remove legal barriers and allow production to be scaled up by multiple manufacturers for critical COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines.”

Countries opposing the waiver proposal are relying on voluntary actions by pharmaceutical corporations to ensure access to essential COVID-19 medical tools. But, in reality, corporations have failed to act and continue to follow a business-as-usual approach by protecting their monopolies and charging exorbitant prices for essential COVID-19 medical tools. The WHO recently recommended two newer therapeutics—tocilizumab and sarilumab—for the treatment of critically and severely ill COVID-19 patients. However, access to these COVID-19 drugs, as well as vaccines, remains limited due to patent monopolies, limited supply, and high prices. 

As many low- and middle-income countries are being hit by dangerous variants and new waves of deaths, shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, and vaccines to protect against the disease and to reduce risk of developing severe illness remain abysmally low. The proposed “TRIPS Waiver,” if adopted, would provide countries with an effective and expeditious way to remove key IP barriers and legal risks and allow additional manufacturers to help scale-up supply of COVID-19 vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, and other health technologies all over the world, including in low- and middle-income countries like those in which MSF operates.

“At a moment when we are in a race against time to save lives and control the spread of unchecked transmission and the development of new dangerous variants, pharmaceutical corporations' business-as-usual approach is intolerable,” Ellman said. “With potentially promising treatments in the pipeline, countries that oppose this waiver must stop filibustering the proposal and support it to cover not just vaccines, but also treatments, diagnostics, and other health technologies.”

Despite the clear long-term public health benefits of the “TRIPS Waiver,” a small group of nations—all of which are in financial positions to outbid lower-income countries in bilateral vaccine deals with pharmaceutical corporations—continues to vigorously stall the negotiations on this landmark proposal at the WTO. In an attempt to derail the process, the EU submitted a competing proposal at the WTO and pushed for its immediate discussion instead of prioritizing the completion of negotiations on the widely supported "TRIPS Waiver" proposal.

“Instead of acting with the urgency and in global solidarity, the EU submitted a separate proposal that is an attempt to limit some of the key public health safeguards used by countries,” said Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. "It provides nothing significantly new or helpful to address the limitations of the current rules and to alleviate the spiraling COVID-19 pandemic. This move clearly demonstrates a questionable and troubling ploy by the EU to derail the growing global consensus for a more expeditious option to overcome IP barriers in the pandemic, in order to save more lives. As the virus continues to claim millions of lives around the world, we cannot afford to lose more precious time.”

Originally proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020, the waiver is now officially backed by 63 co-sponsoring governments, with around 100 countries supporting the proposal overall. It has gained worldwide support by hundreds of civil society organizations, academics, scientists, medical associations, trade unions, and United Nations agencies, including the WHO and UNAIDS. Recently, more than 100 IP lawyers and academics published a letter in support of the “TRIPS Waiver.”

In addition to fully supporting the “TRIPS Waiver” proposal, MSF urges the US and other governments with sufficient COVID-19 vaccine supplies to immediately redistribute surplus doses to the COVAX Facility, the global initiative that aims to deliver COVID-19 vaccines based on public health needs. Additionally, the US and German governments must pressure Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to share mRNA vaccine technology and know-how with manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries that stand ready to help boost supply, and for all governments to support the WHO mRNA Technology Transfer Hub with financial and political support.