South Africa, India urge WTO to amend monopoly patent rights to ensure fair access to Covid-19 vaccines

October 6, 2020: India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organisation on October 2, 2020, to waive some provisions in its TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement to make vaccines and treatment more accessible to low-income countries, reported Pharmalot.

The two countries argue that unless a waiver is issued there are “significant concerns” that diagnostics, medicines and vaccines will not be “available promptly in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand,” according to their submission to the WTO’s TRIPS Council.

Wealthy nations such as the USA, the UK, Germany, France, and Australia have signed deals with various drug makers for hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that are still being tested. Poorer countries lack the means to place such orders and global health officials fear that unequal access will cause further immeasurable suffering and the coronavirus will not be contained.

“It is crucial that other member governments of the WTO support this as we need to ensure that vaccines, drugs, and other medical tools needed for tackling COVID-19 can be scaled up by countries and their manufacturers without facing protracted negotiations for licenses,” said Leena Menghaney, who heads the Doctors Without Borders access campaign in South Asia.

Specifically, India and South Africa have proposed waiving rules that govern patents, industrial designs, copyrights, and protection of undisclosed information, a reference to trade secrets.

“Internationally, there is an urgent call for global solidarity, and the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how in order that rapid responses for the handling of Covid-19 can be put in place on a real time basis,” their submission argued.

The waiver would allow countries around the world to manufacture lower-cost products, explained Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group that focuses on access to medicines and patent rights.

In July, the African Union urged its 55 member states to work with the World Health Organisation to obtain a vaccine, but not let pharmaceutical patents remain an obstacle. The AU called for “equitable and timely distribution” of a Covid-19 vaccine by partnering with COVAX, a WHO – Gavi – CEPI project to make vaccines affordable to low income countries- but also suggested its members consider pursuing compulsory licensing, also allowed under the TRIPS Agreement.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations opposes the WHO COVAX Facility and compulsory licensing and prefers to retain monopoly patents and negotiate prices with governments, a process which is not affordable for many low income countries.