More than 20 months since India and South Africa first proposed a landmark intellectual property (IP) waiver to lift IP monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools, World Trade Organization (WTO) members reached a decision today at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva. The problematic version of the waiver that was adopted will essentially only waive certain IP on COVID-19 vaccines—leaving people across the world without access to lifesaving treatments and diagnostics, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The waiver that was agreed to contains a potentially harmful set of clarifications of the existing public health safeguards and a limited exception for the procedure of using compulsory licensing for export of COVID-19 vaccines by eligible countries for a duration of five years.
Dr. Christos Christou, international president of MSF, said of today’s decision:
“We are disappointed with the inadequate outcome on waiving IP for COVID-19 medical tools that resulted from more than 20 months of deliberations.
“We acknowledge that a few changes were made to the agreement that mitigated some of the most worrisome elements of the earlier text presented in May 2022, but, overall, we are disappointed that a true IP waiver—proposed in October 2020 covering all COVID-19 medical tools and including all countries—could not be agreed to, even during a pandemic that has claimed more than 15 million people’s lives.
“This agreement fails overall to offer an effective and meaningful solution to help increase people’s access to needed medical tools during the pandemic as it does not adequately waive IP on all essential COVID-19 medical tools and it does not apply to all countries. The measures outlined in the decision will not address pharmaceutical monopolies or ensure affordable access to lifesaving medical tools and will set a negative precedent for future global health crises and pandemics.
“Throughout the pandemic, MSF has repeatedly pointed out the challenges and struggles faced by frontline healthcare workers in providing care for people facing COVID-19. Despite lofty political commitments and words of solidarity, it has been discouraging for us to see that wealthy countries failed to resolve the glaring inequities in access to lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools for people in low- and middle-income countries.
“Without agreement on a true global solution to ongoing access challenges, MSF now urges governments to take immediate steps at the national level to make sure people have access to needed COVID-19 medical tools. Governments should consider using all available legal and policy options, including suspending IP on COVID-19 medical tools, issuing compulsory licenses on key medical technologies to overcome patent barriers, and adopting new laws and policies to ensure the disclosure of essential technical information needed to support generic production and supply.
“MSF also calls on governments to take concrete steps to rethink and reform the biomedical innovation system to ensure that lifesaving medical tools are developed, produced, and supplied equitably where monopoly-based and market-driven principles are not a barrier to access. It is time to prioritize saving lives instead of protecting corporate and political interests.”