WHO global project to develop accessible Covid-19 medical products faces trade, corporate barriers

April 27, 2020: The World Health Organisation last week called for US$8 billion to enable the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator. “The world needs these tools, and it needs them fast,” remarked WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a 90-minute presentation. Australia is not part of the effort so far.

The WHO announcement coincided with a letter endorsed by 392 civil society organisations as well as individuals to UN Secretary General Mr António Guterras and WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday 24 April, calling for “Operationalising Fair and Equitable Benefit Sharing of COVID-19 Medical Products”.

From May 4, countries and organizations are encouraged to start pledging contributions to an initial WHO $8 billion fund. When that target is reached, additional milestones will be announced as part of an ongoing “rolling replenishment.”

Among those involved are France; Germany; the UK; Saudi Arabia; South Africa; Italy; Norway; Spain; Malaysia; the World Bank; the United Nations; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Unitaid; Wellcome Trust; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations; and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers.

It remains unclear about the extent to which the project will include a ‘voluntary’ pool to collect patent rights, regulatory test data, and other information that could be shared for developing drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics. The European Union drafted a resolution asking the World Health Assembly to adopt this idea, which was proposed by Costa Rica.

According to Prof Brook Baker at Northeastern University School of Law, drug, device and vaccine makers should provide all the technology transfer rights needed for sufficient world-wide manufacturing and at the same time abandon monopoly rights, often reinforced in trade agreements, that could lead to excessive prices. Prof Baker said that governments should use emergency powers if the corporate sector doesn’t cooperate.

He also pointed out that the rich countries must not demand preferential access to the products needed to cope with COVID-19, noting the problem that the entire European Union and 52 other counties have imposed export controls on COVID-19 medical supplies. He urged them to open trade in ingredients, components, and finished products.