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A year on, pro-health groups urge European states not to block move

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on September 13, 2021

WTO members to reconvene today on proposal made by India, S Africa

It’s close to a year since India and South Africa first proposed a temporary waiver of intellectual property protection on Covid-linked medical tools at the World Trade Organization.

And though they have the support of over 100 nations, the proposal continues to draw opposition from a bunch of countries in Europe. On Tuesday, WTO member countries will reconvene after a gap of two months for another round of discussions on the IP waiver proposal.

Ahead of the meeting, humanitarian organisations such as the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have urged the European Union (EU), strongly backed by Germany, UK, Norway and Switzerland, to stop blocking the initiative to lift monopolies on lifesaving Covid medical tools.

Nearly a year after the waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020, a small group of WTO members continues to stall constructive discussions on this proposal, which would waive patents and other IP on urgently needed Covid vaccines, treatments, tests and other health tools, and pave the way for many countries to increase production and supply of these life-saving medical tools, MSF explained.

The proposal had received a shot in the arm when US President Biden’s administration also put its weight behind an IP waiver for vaccines. But it has been four months since. In fact, the world confronts a situation where there are severe inequities in vaccine distribution, as developed countries corner a lion’s share of the vaccines in circulation.

“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 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.”

Innovator companies have countered such calls, saying they were not asserting their patent rights on Covid-technologies during the pandemic period, although they opted for voluntary licensing deals over IP waivers.

Trade secrets

Besides access concerns involving vaccines and diagnostic tests for example, MSF said the World Health Organization-recommended monoclonal antibody therapeutics, such as tocilizumab and sarilumab, were also out of reach for people in low- and middle-income countries due to high prices, limited supply, and IP barriers. “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,” said MSF.

Meanwhile, the MSF is also calling September 14 a Global Day of Action, calling on Germany, “the EU’s leading TRIPS Waiver opponent”, to stop blocking and support the landmark waiver, among other things.

Published on September 13, 2021

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