Doctors without Borders (MSF) on Tuesday commended South Africa for advocating the removal of intellectual property (IP) barriers that stand in the way of access to COVID-19 drugs, tests and vaccines.
Past experience has shown that IP barriers severely hamper the development of and access to medical tools, especially in low- and middle-income countries, MSF said in a statement emailed to Xinhua. According to MSF, South Africa took leadership in calling for IP barriers to be removed when the World Trade Organization (WTO) met on July 30 for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council formal session.
At the meeting, South Africa called on WTO members to explore new bold measures to address IP barriers, including binding commitments to ensure open sharing and global non-exclusive rights to use know-how, data and technologies, and legislative measures to restrict patent evergreening.
An effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires that all COVID-19 medical tools, including treatments, vaccines and tests, are affordable, available and accessible to everyone and allocated based on public health need, MSF said.
While the 73rd World Health Assembly “COVID-19 response” resolution recommends countries to use the health safeguards enshrined under the TRIPS Agreement to facilitate equitable access, there has not been, until this point, any formal discussion about their use or limitations at WTO, according to MSF.
“We are excited to see South Africa stand strong in the interest of public health today in front of WTO members, highlighting the importance of health safeguards to ensure access to COVID-19 drugs, tests and vaccines, and the limitations of the current international mechanism to overcome barriers to access,” said Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, MSF Access Campaign.
MSF has seen time and time again how IP barriers leave lifesaving medicines, essential diagnostics and new vaccines out of the hands of the most vulnerable people in developing countries, Hu said.
For example, past experience with the pneumococcal vaccine and human papillomavirus vaccine has shown that IP can affect every step of vaccine development, and monopolies can hinder timely introduction of affordable vaccines in developing countries, Hu said.
“We cannot risk repeating the same mistakes in the face of this global pandemic,” he stressed. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been several concerning examples of pharmaceutical corporations seeking monopoly power through patents.
For example, the voluntary licenses recently signed in secret by Gilead, a research-based biopharmaceutical company, for the investigational drug Remdesivir that was approved for emergency use in treating COVID-19 inexcusably exclude nearly half of the world’s population.
“These actions provide scant assurance that pharma can be trusted to act in the public interest and illustrate how we cannot rely on the voluntary actions of companies in this pandemic,” Hu said.
MSF hopes that WTO members recognize the gravity of the challenges faced by countries today and show solidarity once again during this pandemic and support the demand raised by South Africa to pursue a comprehensive and expeditious approach to removing IP barriers, Hu said.
All governments, he said, should take urgent actions to knock down these IP barriers that stand in the way of people’s access, including suspending and overriding patents and other exclusivities.