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MSF urges governments to support WTO move to prevent COVID-19 monopolies

by Byron Adonis Mutingwende
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Ahead of a critical meeting at the World Trade Organization tomorrow, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging all countries, including the US, to support the landmark proposal by India and South Africa to waive certain intellectual property (IP) during the COVID-19 pandemic. This call to allow more affordable versions of COVID-19 medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics to be made comes against the backdrop of cases surging globally.

The IP waiver proposal, if adopted during the WTO General Council meeting on December 16-17, would allow countries to choose to not enforce, apply, or implement pharmaceutical corporation patents and other exclusivities that could impede the production and limit supply of COVID-19 medical tools. Preventing the enforcement of patents to overcome monopolies has proven effective in the past. For example, patents were suspended 20 years ago in certain countries to allow the production of affordable generic HIV/AIDS drugs.

“Governments must not squander this historic opportunity and avoid repeating the painful lessons of the early years of the HIV/AIDS response,” said Yuan Qiong Hu, policy co-coordinator at MSF’s Access Campaign. “This proposal would give countries more ways to tackle legal barriers and maximize production and supply of medical products needed for COVID-19 treatment and prevention.”

Even in the midst of a raging global pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations continue to follow their business-as-usual approach of maximizing profits. The last months have revealed several instances and indications that clearly highlight how IP has hindered, or is expected to hinder, the manufacture and supply of the diagnostics, medical equipment, treatments, and vaccines that are needed to respond to this pandemic. For example, South Africa faced challenges accessing key chemical reagents for COVID-19 diagnostic testing due to proprietary protection on the machines and the reagents. And in Italy, patent holders threatened producers of 3D-printed ventilator valves with patent infringement lawsuits.

“Relying on corporate goodwill or charity is not a solution in a global pandemic,” said Felipe de Carvalho, MSF’s Access Campaign coordinator in Brazil. “Time and again in our work we have witnessed the lengths that the pharmaceutical industry will go to protect its patents and profits, despite the immense human cost. We can’t let drugs, tests, and vaccines developed to tackle COVID-19 become a luxury for the few. They must be accessible to everyone, everywhere, and waiving patents and IP is a critical step.”

The pharmaceutical industry and other opponents of this proposal are making misleading claims that IP has enabled the breakthrough of COVID-19 medicines and vaccines. In reality, public sector resources and philanthropic funding have been the main drivers of the unprecedented research efforts, through the investment of billions of dollars to support the research and development of COVID-19 medical tools. In addition, governments, health care workers, patients, COVID-19 survivors, and the general public have contributed enormously to clinical trials and other R&D activities on different therapeutics and vaccines. Yet many of the pharmaceutical corporations are striving to commercialize and monopolize scientific breakthroughs originating in public labs with public funding around the world.

“Defending monopoly protection is the antithesis to the current call for COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to be treated as global public goods,” Hu said. “In these unprecedented times, governments should act together in the interest of all people everywhere.”

Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, and Bolivia have now officially joined as co-sponsors of the proposal. Since the beginning of discussions at the WTO TRIPS Council in October, approximately 100 countries have welcomed or fully supported the proposal. However, a small group of WTO members—Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and the US—are withholding support that would help build much needed consensus on the proposal. Some of these countries, including the US, have traditionally backed the interests of their pharmaceutical corporations through a IP system that puts profits over public health.

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