Since 20 November 2020, Médecins Sans Frontières has repeated its intervention for rough sleepers and people living in precarious conditions via a mobile clinic operating five days a week near food distribution points in Paris. Composed of a doctor, two nurses, a logistician and a social worker, this mobile clinic offers primary health care, information and Covid-19 screening to all people living on the streets. Here, Sandrine, a nurse, is providing orientation information to a patient after his consultation. © Mohammad Ghannam/MSF

MSF: Governments must act fast on consensus supporting historic move to suspend monopolies during pandemic

Ahead of a critical meeting at the World Trade Organization tomorrow – and against the backdrop of COVID-19 cases surging globally – the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged all countries to act in solidarity and build consensus around the landmark proposal by India and South Africa to waive certain intellectual property (IP) during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the WTO General Council meeting on December 16-17, governments must take all necessary steps to make this proposal a reality.

The IP waiver proposal, if adopted, would allow countries to choose not to enforce, apply or implement patents and other exclusivities that could impede the production and supply of COVID-19 medical tools, and facilitate quicker and better collaboration for needed development, production and supply, without being restricted by corporate interests and actions.

Maximizing production and supplies

“Governments must not squander this historic opportunity and avoid repeating the painful lessons of the early years of the HIV/AIDS response,” said Yuan Qiong Hu, Policy Co-coordinator at MSF’s Access Campaign. “This proposal would give countries more ways to tackle the legal barriers to maximizing production and supply of medical products needed for COVID-19 treatment and prevention.”

Even in the midst of a raging global pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations continue to follow their business-as-usual approach of maximizing profits. The last months have revealed several instances and indications that clearly highlight how IP has hindered or is expected to hinder manufacturing and supply of diagnostics, medical equipment, treatments and vaccines needed to respond to this pandemic. For example, South Africa faced challenges accessing key chemical reagents for COVID-19 diagnostic testing due to proprietary protection on the machines and the reagents. And in Italy, patent holders threatened producers of 3D-printed ventilator valves with patent infringement lawsuits.

“Relying on corporate goodwill or charity is not a solution in a global pandemic,” said Felipe de Carvalho, MSF’s Access Campaign Coordinator in Brazil. “Time and again in our work, we have witnessed the lengths that the pharmaceutical industry will go to protect its patents and profits, despite the immense human cost. We can’t let drugs, tests and vaccines developed to tackle COVID-19 become a luxury for the few—they must be accessible to everyone, everywhere, and waiving patents and IP is a critical step.”

Public sector resources

The pharmaceutical industry and other opponents of this proposal are making misleading claims that IP has enabled the breakthrough of COVID-19 medicines and vaccines. In reality, public sector resources and philanthropic funding have been the main drivers of the unprecedented research efforts, through the investment of billions of US dollars to support the research and development of COVID-19 medical tools. In addition, governments, health care workers, patients, COVID-19 survivors and the general public have contributed enormously to clinical trials and other R&D activities on different therapeutics and vaccines. Yet many of the pharmaceutical corporations are striving to commercialize and monopolise scientific breakthroughs originating in public labs with public funding around the world.

“Defending monopoly protection is the antithesis to the current call for COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to be treated as global public goods,” said Hu. “In these unprecedented times, governments should act together in the interest of all people everywhere.”

E-swatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan and Bolivia have now officially joined as co-sponsors of the proposal. Since the beginning of discussions at the WTO TRIPS Council in October, around 100 countries have welcomed or fully supported the proposal. However, a small group of WTO members –Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and the US – are withholding support that would help build much needed consensus on the proposal. Some of these countries have traditionally backed the interests of their pharmaceutical corporations through a proprietary IP system.