MSF: US should not block WTO waiver that would prevent COVID-19 monopolies

MSF and supporters protest in front of the European Patent Office in September 2018 to demand no patents on the hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir. MSF has a long history of calling for the production of affordable, generic versions of medicines. Many generic medications—including those MSF uses in its projects worldwide—are produced in India, which is often referred to as the "pharmacy of the developing world."
GERMANY 2018 © Peter Bauza/MSF
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NEW YORK/GENEVA, FEBRUARY 3, 2021—Ahead of the next round of talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO) tomorrow to discuss a proposal by South Africa and India to waive monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on the wealthy countries opposing the proposal, including the US, not to block it. The proposal, if adopted, could ensure billions of people worldwide have access to COVID-19 medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics since it would allow more manufacturers to make these lifesaving products. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise across the globe, there is no more time to waste, and governments need to take leadership to make this intellectual property (IP) waiver a reality.

“We’re at a point where we are seeing the stark realities between the haves and have-nots in this pandemic, and governments shouldn’t waste another minute to find solutions to stop this inequity,” said Dr. Sidney Wong, executive co-director of MSF’s Access Campaign. “We have a simple message to the governments opposing this landmark monopoly waiver proposal: please don’t block it. We do not have a level playing field, so—even if you don’t need it or you don’t agree—don’t stop other countries from benefiting from this waiver to protect their own people. This pandemic will not be over until it is over for everyone.”

The waiver proposal aims to allow countries to choose not to enforce, apply, or implement patents and other exclusivities that could impede the production and supply of COVID-19 medical tools until global herd immunity is reached. If adopted, the waiver would allow additional manufacturers to start producing needed COVID-19 medical tools without violating patent and IP restrictions.

The proposal, introduced by India and South Africa last October, is now officially co-sponsored by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Mongolia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, and Egypt. However, a small group of WTO members, including the EU, UK, US, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Australia, continue to oppose it—many of the same countries that have historically helped pharmaceutical companies protect their IP, even at the expense of public health. These countries should not stand in the way of other countries that could benefit from using this waiver to protect their own citizens.

“With the emergence of new strains of COVID-19, many countries in Africa are now struggling with a fast-spreading wave of the disease and an overwhelmed health care system,” said Dr. Khosi Mavuso, medical representative for MSF in South Africa. “We are worried that without universal, affordable, and equitable access to medical tools, the pandemic will last longer, affecting not just people with COVID-19, but also the capacity of health systems to provide immunization, care, and treatment for other diseases. This would cause more death and suffering. It is plainly clear that this monopoly waiver seeks to prioritize human lives over private profits, so we call on countries to act fast and make it a reality.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the need to ensure global open access and the right for as many manufacturers as possible to produce and supply COVID-19 medical tools has been widely acknowledged. Yet, despite efforts and statements made by several heads of state for COVID-19 medical products to be treated as “global public goods,” little has been achieved to date. Pharmaceutical corporations continue to sign secretive bilateral commercial licensing and purchase agreements that ensure access for people in many high-income countries while undermining access for vulnerable and neglected populations in many developing countries.

Even though the waiver proposal offers an opportunity to all countries to collectively take a stand against corporate monopolies on COVID-19 medical production and supply, the opposing countries continue to use delay tactics to stall the process. In the past three months of discussions at the WTO, countries sponsoring the waiver proposal have repeatedly demonstrated challenges faced due to IP barriers in the pandemic and their inability to rely neither on the existing legal options, nor companies’ voluntary actions to ensure global access to COVID-19 medical tools. Yet, opposing countries continue to delay the possibility of reaching common ground and moving the process forward.

“The sole interest of pharmaceutical corporations in the patent system has always been to use it as a business strategy to block competition, maintain monopoly status, and keep prices high,” said Leena Menghaney, South Asia head of MSF’s Access Campaign. “In this raging pandemic, countries that have traditionally backed pharmaceutical corporations must quit protecting their business interests. We call on countries opposing this critical waiver to stop using delay tactics and instead demonstrate global solidarity by not blocking this waiver. The clock is ticking and so many lives are at stake."