Governments must act fast to support historic move to suspend monopolies during pandemic

Over 100 countries support the landmark proposal, but crucial WTO member states including the UK block progress

Ahead of a critical meeting at the World Trade Organization—and against the backdrop of COVID-19 cases surging globally—the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is urging 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 16-17 December, 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. 

“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.”  

Intellectual property barriers 

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.” 

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 commercialise 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.”  

UK putting pharma profit over saving lives  

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.  

“Many countries with a strong pharmaceutical lobby, including the UK, are opposing this waiver. But they must not choose to put pharmaceutical corporation profits ahead of people’s lives. There is still time – we call on the UK to change course and support this waiver,” said Roz Scourse, policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign.  

“The UK has acknowledged that ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe’. Yet the UK have so far chosen not to stand with over 100 countries that agree that IP is one of the critical barriers to accessing the medical treatments and products they need to protect themselves from COVID-19. It is simply unforgivable to block these efforts to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 health technologies.” 

Contact us
About MSF UK

This is the press room for MSF UK - the UK office of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. MSF offers assistance to people based on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.

MSF UK's privacy notice is available here.

Lower Ground Floor, Chancery Exchange,
10 Furnival Street, London, EC4A 1AB