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UN, WHO urged to ensure ‘benefit sharing’ of Covid-related data

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on April 28, 2020 Published on April 28, 2020

Biopharma firms should reach vaccines, medicines to poor nations at affordable price, say civil society bodies

Close to 400 civil society organisations and individuals have written to the UN and the WHO, seeking fair and equitable “benefit sharing” of the SARS-CoV-2 digital sequence information and samples as recognised by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Nagoya Protocol.

The two organisations should “secure binding commitments from biopharmaceutical companies and other manufacturers for the rapid supply of existing and future medical products, especially diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to developing and least developed countries at an affordable price,” said the letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Fairness and equity

The CBD and its Nagoya Protocol are binding international instruments based on principles of fairness and equity, the letter said, linking it to “access to biological resources with fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of such resources.” The CBD has 196 parties and its Nagoya Protocol, 123 parties, legally committed to it.

These principles are endorsed by WHO member states as they form the basis of the organisation’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework (PIP Framework), a multilateral instrument which recognises the importance of sharing influenza viruses of pandemic potential on an “equal footing” with benefit sharing, considering both “as equally important parts of the collective action for global public health”, the letter added.

And yet, it noted, “We are very distressed over the scramble for medical supplies to curb the Covid-19 outbreak, with developed countries, especially the United States and European countries, leveraging their influence and spending, at the expense of the needs of developing and least developed countries around the world.”

Pointing out that intellectual property should not interfere with efforts to curb the Covid outbreak, the letter called on the two organisations to “organise open platforms for the widespread and unconditional sharing of technology and knowledge including technical specifications, designs, blueprints and any other know-how to scale up local/regional manufacturing of medical products required for Covid-19 response including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines; and towards that end to secure binding commitments from biopharmaceutical companies and other medical product manufacturers.” Similar open platforms were also urged for Covid-19-related research efforts.

Rapid sharing

Appreciating the sharing of Covid-19 samples with reference laboratories for rapid confirmation and analysis, the letter said, “the first genetic sequence data for 2019-nCoV from China was freely and rapidly shared with the Global Initiative of Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). Since then, samples and digital sequence information continue to be shared by developing countries. Mounting evidence that, like influenza, the CoV-2 virus is mutating as it spreads around the world implies an ongoing need for epidemiological surveillance to collect and sequence CoV-2 strains from around the world to ensure that any new treatments will remain effective.”

The sharing of SARS-CoV-2 samples as well as sequence information continues to be pivotal for the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, it added.

The WHO’s R&D Blueprint agrees that “virus materials, clinical samples and associated data should be rapidly shared for immediate public health purposes and that fair and equitable access to any medical products or innovations that are developed using the materials must be part of such sharing”, said the letter. The Blueprint also recognises that access to the research benefits and the scale-up of manufacturing of the products was critical.

Despite the good intentions, it remains unclear whether and how these elements are being operationalised, with fair and equitable benefit sharing realised, the letter said.

Lack of guarantee

“We are extremely concerned by the lack of guarantee from biopharmaceutical, and diagnostic companies to ensure rapid availability and affordability of medical products (especially diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines as they are developed and rolled out) to all in need in developing and least developed countries, and to ensure dissemination of manufacturing technologies to rapidly scale up diagnosis and treatment,” the letter said.

Citing two UN General Assembly Resolutions, the letter further urged the UN Secretary-General to mobilise a coordinated global response to tackle the adverse social and financial impact on all societies, besides ensuring global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment needed to face Covid-19.

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Published on April 28, 2020
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