Huge global civil society support for South Africa and India on COVID-19 patent waiver, but WTO delays

October 20, 2020: South Africa and India called on the World Trade Organisation on October 2, 2020, to waive intellectual property rules that could impeded access to treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 pandemic programs. On October 15, 408 Civil Society Organisations from around the world, including AFTINET, called on the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS Council to support the South African and Indian proposal to waive the rules on patents, trade secrets, industrial designs and copyright for COVID-19 technology, such as PPE, test kits, medicines, vaccines, masks, and ventilators.

The 164-member TRIPS Council considered the Waiver Proposal on 15-16 October. According to Politico, during a three-hour discussion, 16 members, including Egypt, Indonesia and Argentina, argued that current flexibilities in the agreement won’t guarantee timely access to vital supplies — such as diagnostics, personal protective equipment, medicines and eventually vaccines — during the pandemic.

But other members — including the EU, USA and the UK and Australla— opposed the waiver. “There is no evidence that intellectual property rights are a genuine barrier for accessibility of COVID-19-related medicines and technologies,” an EU Commission spokesperson told POLITICO.

The TRIPS Council delayed a decision until its next meeting in early 2021.

“In a global pandemic where every country is affected, we need a global solution,” the civil society letter says. “Adoption of a Waiver at the WTO level … enables an expedited, open and automatic global solution to allow uninterrupted collaboration in development, production and supply, and to collectively address the global challenge facing all countries. It’s time for governments to take collective responsibility and put people’s lives before corporate monopolies.

“When COVID-19 was declared to be a pandemic, there was overwhelming consensus that to curb the spread of COVID-19, there was an urgent need for international collaboration to speed up product development, scale up of manufacturing, expand the supply of effective medical technologies and ensure everyone, everywhere is protected. There were even calls including from several Heads of State for COVID-19 medical products to be treated as global public goods.”

“Seven months into the pandemic, there is no meaningful global policy solution to ensure access. Instead, there is an inequality of access to critical technologies that are needed to address the pandemic. Many countries, especially developing and least developed countries struggling to contain COVID-19 have experienced and are facing acute shortages of medical products, including access to diagnostic testing. Furthermore, wealthy nations representing only 13 per cent of the global population have locked up at least half the doses of the world’s five leading potential vaccines”.

Prominent global health initiatives have strongly supported the South African and Indian initiative. These include Marisol Touraine, Chair of the Unitaid Executive Board and former French Minister of Health, Leena Menghaney, South Asia Head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign, and Dr Bernard Pécoul, Executive Director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

On October 12, 2020, a group of prominent South African academics and researchers wrote to their President, Cyril Ramaphosa, urging him to mobilise international and African support for the waiver. “Most immediately, we call on government to urgently introduce emergency legislation to effect the waiver on the enforcement of all forms of intellectual property rights for the entire duration of the COVID-19 pandemic”.