Medical doctor Dr Sharanya Ramakrishna checking a patient in the consultation room of Designated COVID-19 health centre at Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya Shatabdi hospital located in Govandi M East ward Mumbai. MSF has closely been working in co-ordination with Municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for screening, sample collection and diagnostics of Covid-19 and management of Mild to moderate confirmed cases since June 2020. On a daily basis MSF screens nearly 40 patients per day. In July 2020, 1200 patients were screened at the hospital © Abhinav Chatterjee/MSF

MSF to wealthy countries: Don’t block and ruin the potential of a landmark waiver on monopolies during the pandemic

Ahead of the next round of talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to discuss a proposal by South Africa and India to waive monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on the wealthy countries opposing the proposal not to block it and ruin its lifesaving potential for billions of people in the rest of the world. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise across the globe, there is no more time to waste and governments need to take leadership to make this waiver a reality.

“We’re at a point where we are seeing the stark realities between the haves and have-nots in this pandemic, and governments shouldn’t waste another minute to find solutions to stop this inequity,” said Dr Sidney Wong, Executive Co-Director of MSF’s Access Campaign. “We have a simple message to the governments opposing this landmark monopoly waiver proposal: please don’t block it. We do not have a level playing field, so even if you don’t need it or you don’t agree; don’t stop other countries from benefiting from this waiver to protect their own people. This pandemic will not be over until it is over for everyone.”

The intellectual property (IP) waiver proposal aims to 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, until global herd immunity is reached. If adopted, the waiver would send a crucial signal to potential manufacturers that they can start producing needed COVID-19 medical tools without fear of being blocked by patents or other monopolies.

The proposal is now officially co-sponsored by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Mongolia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Egypt. However, a small group of WTO members including the EU, UK, US, Japan, Switzerland and Australia continue to oppose it.

“With the emergence of new strains of COVID-19, many countries in Africa are now struggling with a fast-spreading wave of the disease and an overwhelmed health care system,” said Dr Khosi Mavuso, Medical Representative for MSF in South Africa. “We are worried that without universal, affordable and equitable access to medical tools, the pandemic will last longer, impacting not just people with COVID-19, but also the capacity of health systems to provide immunization, care and treatment for other diseases, causing more deaths and suffering. It is plainly clear that this monopoly waiver seeks to prioritize human lives over private profits, so we call on countries to act fast and make it a reality.”

Global access needed to combat the global pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the need to ensure global open access and the right to produce and supply COVID-19 health technologies has been widely acknowledged. Yet despite efforts and statements made by several heads of state for COVID-19 medical products to be treated as ‘global public goods,’ little has been achieved in this regard to date. Pharmaceutical corporations continue to operate with impunity, for example by signing secretive bilateral commercial licensing and purchase agreements that undermine access for vulnerable and neglected populations in many developing countries.

Even though the waiver proposal offers an opportunity to all countries to collectively take a stand over corporate monopolies on COVID-19 medical production and supply, the opposing countries continue to use delay tactics to stall the process. In the past three months of discussions at the WTO, it is reported that countries sponsoring the waiver proposal have repeatedly demonstrated challenges faced due to IP barriers in the pandemic and their inability to rely neither on the existing legal options, nor companies’ voluntary actions to ensure global access to COVID-19 medical tools. Yet, opposing countries continue to delay the possibility of reaching common ground and moving the process forward.

“The sole interest of pharmaceutical corporations in the patent system has always been to use it as a business strategy to block competition, maintain monopoly status and keep prices high,” said Leena Menghaney, South Asia Head of MSF’s Access Campaign. “In this raging pandemic, countries who have traditionally backed pharmaceutical corporations must quit protecting their business interests. We call on countries opposing this critical waiver to stop using delay tactics and instead demonstrate global solidarity by not blocking this waiver. The clock is ticking and so many lives are at stake.”