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WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Reuters)
WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Reuters)

India’s proposal against covid vaccine nationalism gets WHO backing

  • In a submission before the TRIPS Council of WTO on 2 October, India and South Africa urged WTO members to waive certain rules to scale-up research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat covid-19

Amid resistance from developed countries to India and South Africa's joint proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ensure universal access to coronavirus vaccines, World Health Organization (WHO) has voiced its support for the proposal.

“WHO welcomes South Africa’s and India’s recent proposal to WTO to ease international and intellectual property agreements on covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests in order to make the tools available to all who need them at an affordable cost," WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.

“Ending the pandemic starts with collaboration. WHO launched the covid-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP) in May, inviting countries to share data, knowledge and intellectual property on vital, life-saving health products in the fight against the coronavirus," Ghebreyesus added.

In a submission before the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council of WTO on 2 October, India and South Africa urged WTO members for waiver of certain rules of TRIPS agreement to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat covid-19.

The proposal was taken up for discussion at the TRIPS Council meeting on 15-16 October where developed countries including the US, European Union, Canada, Japan, UK, Australia and Switzerland rejected the proposal while African group countries, least developed countries, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal among other countries supported the proposal. Countries like China, Turkey, Philippines, Colombia sought more information on it. The proposal will now be discussed informally among member countries and may be taken up again later before the year end.

During the discussion at the TRIPS Council, India’s ambassador to the WTO Brajendra Navnit argued that the often-repeated argument that monopoly rights are needed to allow inventors to recoup their investment do not apply in case of development of health products and technologies required for handling the ongoing covid-19 crisis. “We would like to remind the members that in a global pandemic where every country is affected, we need a global solution. And our waiver proposal represents an open and expedited global solution to allow uninterrupted collaboration in development, production and supply of health products and technologies required for an effective covid-19 response," he added.

Countering arguments by some members that voluntary licenses are the most appropriate solution to scale up manufacturing in response to covid-19, India said that not a single patent holder has shown willingness to commit to the covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) initiative launched under the aegis of WHO.

“In fact, the representative from WHO in this Council yesterday (15 October) admitted in response to a question that no pharmaceutical company has committed to sharing its IP (intellectual property) and technologies in the C-TAP pool since its launch more than five months ago. Given the refusal by pharmaceutical industry to routinely offer non-exclusive licenses with worldwide coverage to facilitate global access, clearly the solution to ending the pandemic does not lie in voluntary licenses," he said.

As many as 379 civil society organisations including Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Access Campaign MSF, People’s Vaccine Alliance have written a letter to WTO members welcoming India and South Africa’s proposal citing existing supply-demand gaps in accessing medical products for covid-19, including access to diagnostic testing.

“With entire health systems already overwhelmed by covid-19 and with governments facing a looming economic crisis, the health budgets of many countries simply cannot sustain highly priced covid-19 medical products. These realities will also hinder production by any competent manufacturer and impede the full freedom to collaborate, in developing, producing, importing and exporting the needed medical products," the letter said.

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