MSF: TRIPS waiver must be urgently adopted despite WTO Ministerial Conference postponement

Tackling COVID-19 in Lebanon, through prevention and vaccination

Lebanon 2021 © Tracy Makhlouf/MSF

As new Omicron variant has been identified, MSF and supporters urge high-income countries to stop blocking landmark TRIPS waiver that could help increase access to COVID-19 vaccines and other medical tools

NEW YORK/GENEVA, NOVEMBER 29, 2021—As the World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS Council meets today—after the indefinite postponement of the WTO's 12th Ministerial Conference due to the emergence of a new strain of the novel coronavirus, Omicron—the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) again deplored the dogmatic opposition to the landmark TRIPS waiver proposal by a group of high-income countries, including the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

The TRIPS waiver would waive patents and other intellectual property (IP) rights on urgently needed COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, tests, and other health tools for the duration of the pandemic. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, it is clear that this waiver on IP rights is essential.

“The recent emergence of another new variant is a telling example of how this virus continues to mutate—particularly in the absence of equitable access to the right COVID-19 medical tools to deal with it,” said Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer for MSF’s Access Campaign. “With millions of lives at stake, the world can’t afford to waste any more time. We call on countries opposing and diluting this waiver to today halt the stalling tactics and take urgent measures to adopt a comprehensive waiver for facilitating more diversified and broader production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other health technologies. The waiver is needed now more than ever.”

In the 14 months since India and South Africa first proposed the landmark TRIPS waiver proposal in an effort to increase people’s access to COVID-19 medical products, more than 4 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19—with more than 5 million lives lost since the start of the pandemic. In response, more than 100 nations, including the US, have come together to support the TRIPS waiver. However, due to opposition from a group of high-income countries, negotiations on the TRIPS waiver continue to move at a glacial pace.

“Every day, we are witnessing a desperate need for COVID-19 medical tools in the places we work,” said Reveka Papadopoulou, president of MSF’s operational center in Geneva. “Given the severely limited access to the COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines needed to save lives, it’s truly demoralizing that some governments are opposing an initiative like the TRIPS waiver which could have such a positive impact on how low- and middle-income countries are able to tackle this pandemic.”

As the world continues to experience severe inequity in access to COVID-19 vaccines, access to new treatments and tests to reduce the number of deaths remains crucial, yet similarly challenging. These access challenges are made worse because pharmaceutical corporations provide only a limited supply of medical products to low- and middle-income countries while holding key patents and other IP that can block generic production by additional manufacturers across the world.

The final text of the TRIPS waiver must ensure the scope of the waiver goes beyond vaccines and applies to all essential medical technologies including tests and treatments; that any and all IP and its enforcement are lifted; and that the duration of the waiver lasts for at least five years in order to allow for the manufacturing and supply of COVID-19 medical products and their materials and components to be prepared, scaled up, diversified, and sustained.

To end the COVID-19 pandemic for everyone, high-income countries, including the US, must make public and concrete commitments to redistribute excess COVID-19 vaccine doses globally. The US must also demand Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—which received significant US taxpayer funding to develop COVID-19 mRNA vaccines—share the vaccine technology with the World Health Organization technology transfer hub in South Africa.