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Governments must support landmark proposal to waive COVID-19 patents
by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), OHCHR, agencies
10:15am 7th Nov, 2020
Nov. 2020
Governments must support landmark proposal to waive COVID-19 patents. (MSF)
In October, India and South Africa proposed to waiver some intellectual property rights on coronavirus tools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The landmark request would allow countries to choose not to grant nor enforce patents on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.
MSF urges all countries to back the proposal, which is already supported by 99 countries, to allow COVID-19 tools to be more affordable and accessible.
Geneva - Ahead of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks to consider a landmark request to waive certain intellectual property (IP) during the COVID-19 pandemic – put forward by India and South Africa in October – Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls on all governments to support this game-changing step.
The IP waiver would allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other IP related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic, until global herd immunity is achieved.
This move harkens back 20 years to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when affordable generic HIV drugs, made in countries where patents did not block production, began saving millions of people’s lives.
“Not even a global pandemic can stop pharmaceutical corporations from following their business-as-usual approach, so countries need to use every tool available to make sure that COVID-19 medical products are accessible and affordable for everyone who needs them,” said Dr Sidney Wong, Executive Co-Director of MSF’s Access Campaign.
“All COVID-19 health tools and technologies should be true global public goods, free from the barriers that patents and other intellectual property impose.”
“We’re calling on all governments to urgently throw their support behind this ground-breaking proposal that puts human lives over corporate profits at this critical moment for global health,” said Dr Wong.
Since the start of the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations have maintained their standard practice of rigid control over intellectual property rights, while pursuing secretive and monopolistic commercial deals that exclude many middle- and low-income countries from benefitting.
For example, Gilead entered into restrictive bilateral licensing for one of the only drugs to have shown potential benefit to treat COVID-19, remdesivir, excluding nearly half of the world’s population from benefitting from price-lowering generic competition.
Additionally, several new and repurposed medicines and monoclonal antibodies being trialled as promising treatments for COVID-19, are already patented in many middle-income countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, China and Malaysia. With the exception of one company, none of the COVID-19 vaccine developers have committed to treating IP any differently than the status quo.
While some companies have taken steps through licensing and technology transfer deals to use existing global manufacturing capacity to try and mitigate anticipated supply shortages of potentially successful vaccines, this has been the exception, and the licensing deals often come with clear limitations.
Historically, steps have been taken to overcome monopolies that have allowed pharmaceutical corporations to keep prices artificially high. In 2001, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the ‘Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health’ affirmed governments’ rights to take all necessary measures to eliminate patents and other IP barriers, putting governments in the driver’s seat so they can prioritise public health over corporate interests. This current waiver request to the WTO is a similar step to speed up the response to COVID-19.
“This bold step by governments offers the world a chance to avoid repeating the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic 20 years ago, when monopolies on lifesaving treatments saw people in high-income countries get access to HIV medicines while millions in developing countries were left to die,” said Dr Khosi Mavuso, Medical Representative for MSF in South Africa. “Overriding monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools will allow global collaboration to scale-up manufacturing, supply and access for everyone.”
“With more than 1.3 million lives already lost to COVID-19, governments cannot afford to waste any more time waiting for voluntary moves by the pharmaceutical industry,” said Dr Mavuso.
At the last WTO meeting of the TRIPS Council (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) on 15 and 16 October, Kenya and Eswatini joined India and South Africa in officially co-sponsoring the waiver. A total of 99 countries have welcomed and shown support overall. But the waiver proposal is not being supported by multiple wealthy nations, including the US, the UK, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union.
“Governments need to ask themselves which side of history they want to be on when the books on this pandemic are written,” said Wong.
Nov. 2020
Statement by UN Human Rights Experts: Universal access to vaccines is essential for prevention and containment of COVID-19 around the world. (OHCHR)
To date, there have been more than 49 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1.2 million deaths reported to WHO. This disease continues to prove more deadly than anticipated while the world carries on facing the cumulative and interconnected health, economic, social and human rights crises it has unleashed.
In October 2020, the World Bank estimated that the pandemic will push an additional of between 88 to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021. The World Food Programme projected that 265 million people will face crisis levels of hunger unless direct action is taken, doubling their estimations of hungry people pre-COVID-19.
These and many other figures offer only a glimpse of the exorbitant human costs of the pandemic. At the national and international levels, COVID-19 has brought to the fore systemic inequalities, aggravated pre-existing institutional weaknesses including in health, food and procurement systems, and highlighted a lack of access to quality, accessible and affordable health care for all. Socio-economic inequality has deepened even further.
At a global level, inequalities are also increasing between countries with enough economic means to face the crises and those without. Responses to the pandemic have sometimes been used as a pretext by Governments and business enterprises to undermine or lessen international human rights commitments.
In our capacity as UN human rights experts, we emphasise that a global pandemic of this scale and human cost, with no clear end in sight, requires a concerted, principled and courageous response. All efforts to prevent, treat and contain COVID-19 must be based on the bedrock human-rights based principles of international solidarity, cooperation and assistance.
There is no room for nationalism or profitability in decision-making about access to vaccines, essential tests and treatments, and all other medical goods, services and supplies that are at the heart of the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all.
Since millions of people’s hope is that vaccines are developed safely and swiftly, that they are made universally available, that they are affordable, easily accessible, this statement aims at raising some of the critical human rights aspects that are intertwined with regard to the rights to life, to health and to international cooperation and assistance and to provide some recommendations for States.
* Access the full statement:
Oct. 2020
As pandemic deaths pass 1 million, COVID survivors from 37 countries write to pharmaceutical bosses to demand a People's Vaccine.
Survivors of COVID-19 from 37 countries are among almost 1,000 people who have signed an open letter to pharmaceutical industry leaders calling for a ‘people's vaccine’ and treatments that are available to all – free from patents. The letter comes on the eve of a high-level side event about the pandemic at the UN General Assembly in New York tomorrow (30 September).
The signatories include 242 COVID-19 survivors from South Africa to Finland and New Zealand to Brazil. They also include 190 people in 46 countries who have lost relatives to the virus, and 572 signatories with underlying health conditions that mean they are more likely to develop severe forms of COVID-19 and have a greater risk of dying from it.
The letter says: “Some of us have lost loved ones to this killer disease. Some of us have come close to death ourselves. Some of us are continuing to live in fear that contracting this disease would be fatal for us. We see no justification why your profit or monopolies should mean anyone else should go through this.”
It describes pharmaceutical corporations as “carrying on with business as usual - defending monopolies while refusing to share research and know-how” and calls on industry leaders to “ensure COVID-19 vaccines and treatments reach everyone who needs them by preventing monopolies, ramping up production and sharing knowledge.”
Pharmaceutical monopolies will restrict the production of effective vaccines and treatments to a small number of manufacturers, preventing the mass production that is needed to meet global demand. The letter demands that corporations immediately license vaccine technology and intellectual property rights to the WHO COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP).
One of the signatories, Dilafruz Gafurova, 43, from Tajikistan, said: “Me and my husband got sick with this disease. We could only rely on ourselves as hospitals were full … It was really difficult to get the right medicines. I am a mother of four children … I was afraid to leave them alone in this world if something bad could happen with me … The reason I am signing this letter is to help others to get [a] vaccine. Not all the people around the world can get this vaccine, as they simply cannot afford it. They hardly [have enough to meet] their daily needs.”
The letter was organised by the People's Vaccine Alliance, a global coalition of organisations and activists united under a common aim of campaigning for a people’s vaccine for COVID-19 that is based on shared knowledge and is freely available to everyone everywhere.
So far rich nations have failed to exert pressure on pharmaceutical corporations to share technology to maximise the supply of successful vaccines and treatments worldwide.
Heidi Chow from Global Justice Now, a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance said: “Pharmaceutical companies need to pay attention to the demands of people from around the world who have experienced the fear and devastation of COVID-19. The industry cannot block its ears to these voices but should respond immediately by ending their monopolies and commit to sharing manufacturing know-how. These actions are crucial to expand vaccine supplies so that all countries can affordably access effective vaccines.”
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, said: "With AIDS we saw that when treatments were found the wealthier people in wealthier countries got back to health, while millions of people in developing countries were left to die. We must not repeat the same mistake when a vaccine for COVID-19 is found. The right to health is a human right—it should not depend on the money in your pocket or the colour of your skin to be vaccinated against this deadly virus. A vaccine should be a global public good and free of charge for all."
The Alliance is also calling on governments to make public funding for research and development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments conditional on pharmaceutical companies sharing their knowledge and technology free from patents. When an effective vaccine is available, the Alliance demands that doses are fairly distributed with priority given to health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries.
May 2020
People’s Vaccine Alliance
Humanity today, in all its fragility, is searching for an effective and safe vaccine against COVID-19. It is our best hope of putting a stop to this painful global pandemic.
We are calling on Health Ministers at the World Health Assembly to rally behind a people’s vaccine against this disease urgently. Governments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge. The same applies for all treatments, diagnostics, and other technologies for COVID-19.
We recognize that many countries and international organizations are making progress towards this goal, cooperating multilaterally on research and development, funding and access, including the welcome $8 billion pledged on 4th May. Thanks to tireless public and private sector efforts and billions of dollars of publicly-financed research, many vaccine candidates are proceeding with unprecedented speed and several have begun clinical trials.
Our world will only be safer once everyone can benefit from the science and access a vaccine — and that is a political challenge. The World Health Assembly must forge a global agreement that ensures rapid universal access to quality-assured vaccines and treatments with need prioritized above the ability to pay.
It is time for Health Ministers to renew the commitments made at the founding of the World Health Organization, where all states agreed to deliver the “the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being”.
Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives, or to leave this massive and moral task to market forces. Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity. We cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way.
We must heed the warning that “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” We must learn the painful lessons from a history of unequal access in dealing with disease such as HIV and Ebola. But we must also remember the ground-breaking victories of health movements, including AIDS activists and advocates who fought for access to affordable medicines for all.
Applying both sets of lessons, we call for a global agreement on COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments — implemented under the leadership of the World Health Organization — that:
1. Ensures mandatory worldwide sharing of all COVID-19 related knowledge, data and technologies with a pool of COVID-19 licenses freely available to all countries. Countries should be empowered and enabled to make full use of agreed safeguards and flexibilities in the WTO Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health to protect access to medicines for all.
2. Establishes a global and equitable rapid manufacturing and distribution plan — that is fully-funded by rich nations — for the vaccine and all COVID-19 products and technologies that guarantees transparent ‘at true cost-prices’ and supplies according to need. Action must start urgently to massively build capacity worldwide to manufacture billions of vaccine doses and to recruit and train the millions of paid and protected health workers needed to deliver them.
3. Guarantees COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, tests and treatments are provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere. Access needs to be prioritized first for front-line workers, the most vulnerable people, and for poor countries with the least capacity to save lives.
In doing so, no one can be left behind. Transparent democratic governance must be set in place by the WHO, inclusive of independent expertise and civil society partners, which is essential to lock-in accountability for this agreement.
In doing so, we also recognize the urgent need to reform and strengthen public health systems worldwide, removing all barriers so that rich and poor alike can access the health care, technologies and medicines they need, free at the point of need.
Only a people’s vaccine — with equality and solidarity at its core — can protect all of humanity and get our societies safely running again. A bold international agreement cannot wait.

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