The World Health Organisation (WHO) has lent its support to a proposal from South Africa and India to the World Trade Organization (WTO) seeking a waiver on certain intellectual property (IP) provisions that could come in the way of access to medicines, vaccines and devices developed to tackle the novel coronavirus.

The support comes even as the recently-concluded TRIPS Council meeting failed to reach a consensus on the issue, setting it up for informal consultations for resolution by the year-end. The TRIPS Council is responsible for implementing the TRIPS (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement.

Expressing support on a micro-blogging site, WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, the WHO welcomed South Africa’s and India’s recent proposal to the WTO “to ease international & intellectual property agreements on #COVID19 vaccines, treatments & tests in order to make the tools available to all who need them at an affordable cost.”

Further, he added, “Ending the pandemic starts with collaboration. @WHO launched the #COVID19 Technology Access Pool in May, inviting countries to share data, knowledge and intellectual property on vital, life-saving health products in the fight against the coronavirus.”

At the TRIPS Council meeting, India explained that the IP-waiver was important “for those who have insufficient or no manufacturing capacities in the health products required to combat the Covid crisis. In the past few months, India has supplied medical products and equipments needed in fighting the pandemic to more than 150 countries and resisted the attempts to corner the supplies by a few countries.”

Global solution

Stressing the need for a global solution to the pandemic, India said, “there can be no denying the fact” that the development of and equitable access to the tools required to fight Covid-19 were “limited by IP barriers.” Pointing to lawsuits filed by private companies in different parts of the world for IP infringement on Covid-19 products, India added, IPR did come in the way of “scaling up production of test kit reagents, ventilator valves, N95 respirators, therapeutics, fluorescent proteins and other technologies used in development of vaccines etc.”

Voluntary licences were not the solution, India pointed out, as “not a single IP holder has shown willingness to commit to the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and the ACT-Accelerator voluntary initiatives launched under the aegis of WHO. In fact, the representative from WHO in this Council yesterday admitted in response to a question that no pharmaceutical company has committed to sharing its IP and technologies in the C-TAP pool since its launch more than five months ago.”

The IP waiver was met with support from least developed countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Argentina and Indonesia; resistance from the European Union, US, Switzerland, UK and Brazil, and a request for clarification from China, Thailand, Nigeria, Costa Rica etc

Countries resisting the waiver pointed out that the TRIPS Agreement had flexibilities to facilitate access. In it’s response, South Africa said, the waiver was a temporary suspension and not a substantive change to treaty obligations. The scope of the waiver proposal was clear and time-bound, it added.

In the run-up to the WTO meeting, several civil society voices lending support to the IP-waiver pointed out “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.”