Countries urge patent waiver for more than just Covid-19 vaccines

Over 60 nations have presented a revision of their text on ditching IP protections for Covid-19 jabs and other medical tools. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - Dozens of countries have revised a proposal at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for a patent waiver for medical tools needed to combat Covid-19, insisting it must cover more than just vaccines, non-governmental organisations said on Saturday (May 22).

More than 60 countries have presented to the WTO a revision of their text on ditching intellectual property protections for Covid-19 jabs and other medical tools while the pandemic rages, according to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI).

KEI published what it said was the revised text, which pushed for the waiver to be broad and long-lasting.

The WTO did not immediately verify the authenticity of the document, but a Western diplomat close to the waiver discussions confirmed that it was genuine and had been distributed to all WTO members.

That text said the waiver should cover all medical "prevention, treatment and containment" tools needed to battle Covid-19.

In addition to vaccines, it should include treatments, diagnostics, medical devices and protective equipment, along with the material and components needed to produce them, it said.

It also said the waiver should last for "at least three years" from the date it takes effect, following which, the WTO's general council should determine whether it could be lifted or should be prolonged.

'Frightening increase'

"We are pleased to see the governments sponsoring the Covid-19 intellectual property waiver proposal reaffirm that the waiver aims to remove monopoly barriers for all medical tools... needed to tackle this pandemic," MSF South Asia chief Leena Manghaney said in a statement.

"With a frightening increase in infections and deaths in developing countries, and with potentially promising treatments in the pipeline, it is crucial that governments have every flexibility at their disposal to beat back this pandemic," she said.

The WTO has since last October faced calls led by India and South Africa for the temporary removal of such IP protections, in what proponents argue will boost production in developing countries and address the dramatic inequity in access.

That notion has long met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insisted that patents were not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warned that the move could hamper innovation.

The positions appeared to shift earlier this month, when Washington came out in support of a global patent waiver for the jabs, with other long-time opponents voicing openness to discussing the matter. The European Parliament voted narrowly this week to urge Brussels to get behind the proposal.

But observers have said the ambitions for the waiver appear to differ significantly among the long-time supporters and those now coming around to the idea, who have seemed to focus more narrowly on vaccines.

It remains unclear if countries will be able to see eye to eye, but with the pandemic that has killed over 3.4 million people still far from over, there is intense pressure on them to do so.

With the new revision on the table, MSF called for "governments to immediately move towards text-based negotiations", insisting there was no time to lose.

In the light of the WTO's usual glacial pace in decision-making - with agreements requiring consensus backing by all 164 member states - a deal could take time.

According to MSF, more than 100 countries, including China and Russia, now support the proposal.

A full 62 countries are now official co-sponsors of the proposal, with Indonesia, Fiji, Vanuatu and Namibia having joined in recent weeks.

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