South Africa protests urge US and EU to move forward on TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and medical tools

MSF joins activists pushing to break the stalemate ahead of critical WTO meeting this week


NEW YORK/GENEVA, OCTOBER 12, 2021—As governments prepare to discuss the TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) this week, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) joined activists and civil society organizations in protests today outside the embassies of the United States, Belgium, and the Netherlands in Tshwane, the executive capital of South Africa. Protesters are calling on these governments to break the impasse and fast-track negotiations on the TRIPS waiver—a temporary waiver on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)—so it is adopted at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference at the end of November. This waiver would suspend patents and other intellectual property rights on urgently needed COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, tests, and other medical tools for the duration of the pandemic.

The groups also urged the US, which issued a statement of support for the TRIPS waiver in early May, to play a more active role in finalizing the agreement.

“The US made a big, bold decision to support this groundbreaking TRIPS waiver, but is now largely absent from the global effort to make it a reality,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA. "This is a historic opportunity, and the US must play a leadership role. While the US now has plenty of tools to tackle COVID-19, people in many low- and middle-income countries are still suffering and dying without vaccines, tests, or treatments. We don’t have time to waste. The US must deliver on its promise and ensure that the TRIPS waiver is adopted.”

The landmark TRIPS waiver proposal was originally put forward by India and South Africa one year ago and is now officially backed by 64 sponsoring governments, with more than 100 countries supporting overall. However, despite dozens of statements by supporting governments emphasizing the waiver’s urgency and importance, the proposal has been effectively stalled by a small number of opposing governments, including many in the European Union—primarily Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden—plus Norway, Switzerland, and the UK.

“We have gathered outside the embassies of Belgium and the Netherlands to relay a clear message to EU countries to stop stonewalling this critical waiver and stop putting multinational pharmaceutical corporation profiteering over human lives,” said Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer for MSF’s Access Campaign. “Even though France, Greece, Italy, and Spain have already come out in support of the waiver, another handful of governments in the EU with strong ties to pharmaceutical corporations is choosing to put shareholder interests over the lives of people across the globe. We are calling on supportive EU countries to show real leadership and convince their neighbors to do the right thing so that the EU as a whole finally gets in line and supports the TRIPS waiver.”

The world continues to witness global inequity in access to COVID-19 medical tools with high-income countries like the US stockpiling and hoarding treatments and vaccines instead of allowing the fair distribution needed to end this pandemic. The US recently reserved 1.7 million treatments of the promising COVID-19 treatment molnupiravir, which, if approved, could be critical for reducing hospitalizations and deaths. The molnupiravir case illustrates why the TRIPS waiver is so desperately needed; while the US government funded the development of the medicine by Emory University, pharmaceutical corporations Ridgeback and Merck obtained the licensing and rights for the medicine. Instead of offering licenses widely to all competent manufacturers in different countries, a voluntary license signed in April 2021 only includes Indian generic companies and hinders countries like Brazil from being able to produce and import the API (raw material) and generic versions.

“We have been saying from the start of this pandemic that governments cannot rely on voluntary measures by pharmaceutical corporations, and the molnupiravir example is a case in point,” said Felipe Carvalho, MSF Access Campaign coordinator in Brazil. “We cannot welcome a voluntary license from Merck that deliberately blocks many middle-income countries from producing and supplying this drug on their own. It is crystal clear that unless legal tools like the TRIPS waiver are adopted, many countries will continue to be at the mercy of patent-holding corporations that have the say over who gets to produce, who gets to buy, and at what price, while health ministries are already reeling from the rising costs of tackling COVID-19. We say to the remaining blocking governments: the eyes of the world are really just on you now—so you should think about what side of history you want to be on when the books on this pandemic are written.”

To end this pandemic for everyone, the US must also redistribute their excess vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries via the COVAX Facility and regional procurement mechanisms, as well as demand that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology and know-how so other able manufacturers can make additional mRNA vaccines and meet the global need.