MSF slams European Union for stalling WTO process to waive monopolies on COVID-19 products

June 30, 2021: Current trade rules give pharmaceutical companies 20-year monopoly patents on COVID-19 vaccines and other medical products, which are delaying access for low-income countries. This is why over 100 WTO member countries are supporting the South African and Indian proposals for a temporary waiver of these rules during the pandemic.

Last week, the TRIPS Council at the World Trade organisation held the first informal discussion on the European Union (EU) proposal which argues that current compulsory licensing rules can be used to enable increased production of COVID-19 vaccines and other medical products. The EU proposal is supported by pharmaceutical companies.

These provisions do allow a government to by-pass a patent in a national emergency such as the current pandemic, but each government has to negotiate separately with each patent holder. There are so many patents involved with COVID-19 vaccines and other products that this would take years.

Medecins sans Frontières strongly criticised the EU move as an effort to distract from the stronger proposal from South Africa, India and 63 other governments to suspend all patents on COVID-19 related products for at least three years.

“While MSF has long been a supporter and advocate of compulsory licenses, the mechanism is insufficiently adapted to address the IP challenges on medical technologies in a global pandemic,” said the MSF media statement.

“The EU initiative does not address the shortcomings of the current compulsory licensing mechanism, undermines existing TRIPS flexibilities and risks delaying the urgent adoption of the TRIPS Waiver proposal (see MSF detailed analysis on the EU initiative).

South Africa and India put their proposal forward in October 2020, whereas the EU only put their “alternative” on June 4, 2021.

According to reports, the Australian government is supporting discussion of the EU position, and has not declared support for the South Africa–India proposal. This may also reflect pharmaceutical company influence.