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Countries must not let another opportunity slip by to advance the global waiver on overcoming COVID-19 medical-tool monopolies

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Geneva, 13 September 2021 – As countries reconvene tomorrow for another round of discussions on the “TRIPS Waiver” proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), after a gap of over two months, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) calls on the European Union (EU), strongly backed by Germany, and the UK, Norway, and Switzerland to stop blocking this initiative on lifting the monopolies on lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools.

Nearly a year after the Waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 – and now supported by over 100 nations – a small group of opposing WTO members including the EU, UK, Norway and Switzerland continue to stall constructive discussions on this proposal, which would waive patents and other intellectual property (IP) on urgently needed COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, tests and other health tools, for the duration of the pandemic, and pave the way for many countries to increase production and supply of these lifesaving medical tools.

“Despite the groundbreaking medical innovations delivered in the past year, and tall commitments by some powerful nations promising global solidarity and equity, access to these innovative COVID-19 medical tools remains scant in too many low- and middle-income countries,” said Candice Sehoma, South Africa Advocacy Officer, MSF Access Campaign. “People in these countries, facing life or death in this pandemic, can no longer rely merely on charitable or voluntary measures dictated by only a small number of high-income countries and the pharmaceutical industry they host. We demand the countries opposing the TRIPS Waiver to stop blocking the will of the majority of the world to obtain this additional legal tool in the pandemic to achieve self-reliance in producing COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.”

While severe inequity in access to COVID-19 vaccines continues, access to treatments and diagnostic tests to reduce the number of deaths is equally challenging. New WHO-recommended COVID-19 monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapeutics, such as tocilizumab and sarilumab, are out of reach for people in low- and middle-income countries due to high prices, limited supply, and IP barriers. Besides patents, corporations often claim trade secrets over important information that could facilitate rapid production and supply of mAbs by alternative producers.

Developers of diagnostic tests often own multiple patents on instruments, reagents and methods to discourage competition, and do not share know-how and other trade secrets to scale up production. The US diagnostics company Cepheid has maintained a monopoly in the pandemic on the GeneXpert testing system with high prices and trade secrets, despite having received over $250 million in public funds to develop this technology.

The TRIPS Waiver could help remove the legal barriers and uncertainties to facilitate manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to scale up production and supply of medical tools like tests and treatments.

“With the fast-approaching WTO Ministerial Conference in November, we strongly urge countries to accelerate the negotiations on the TRIPS Waiver and ensure its rapid adoption,” said Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, MSF Access Campaign. “Doing so will be a critical and historical step to remove monopoly barriers hindering increased global production and diversity of supplies – and all people’s access to desperately needed COVID-19 medical tools.”

MSF is also supporting a Global Day of Action on 14 September calling on Germany, the EU’s leading TRIPS Waiver opponent, to stop blocking and support the landmark Waiver, as well as immediately redistribute excess vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries through the COVAX Facility, and pressure German pharmaceutical company BioNTech to share the technology and know-how of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine with developing-country manufacturers.

Editor’s note:

On achieving global COVID-19 vaccine access

In addition to supporting the TRIPS Waiver proposal, MSF calls on governments to use all legal and policy tools to facilitate uninterrupted production and diversity in supply of COVID-19 medical tools, including the full use of existing TRIPS flexibilities for public health safeguarding. MSF also urges all governments with sufficient COVID-19 vaccine doses to immediately redistribute excess doses to the COVAX Facility. MSF urges the US and German governments to pressure Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to share mRNA vaccine technology and know-how with manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries, and for all governments to support the WHO COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub with financial and political support.