India, S. Africa move WTO on COVID-19 prevention, treatment

They seek waiver on some provisions of world agreements that regulate intellectual property rights to expedite steps to contain pandemic

Published - October 03, 2020 06:50 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva. Photo used for representation purpose only. File

Logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva. Photo used for representation purpose only. File

India and South Africa, in a formal submission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on October 2, sought a waiver on certain provisions of the international agreements that regulate intellectual property rights to speed up efforts to prevent, treat and contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the communication, the countries said there were several reports about intellectual property rights hindering or potentially hindering timely provisioning of affordable medical products to COVID-19 patients and that a particular concern for countries with insufficient or no manufacturing capacity were the requirements of cumbersome and lengthy process of the import and export of pharmaceutical products.

Many countries, especially the developing ones, may face institutional and legal difficulties when using flexibilities available in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). Beyond patents, other intellectual property rights may also pose a barrier, with limited options to overcome those barriers, noted the submission.

Experts said that given this present context of global emergency, it was important for WTO members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information did not create barriers to timely access to affordable medical products, including vaccines and medicines, or to scaling up research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19.

“The waiver of TRIPS Obligation is a major initiative to ensure availability and affordability of medical products required for COVID19 fights. The medical products companies especially medicine and vaccine manufacturers want to profit from pandemic by keeping the monopoly rights through intellectual protection. This proposal shows the political will of India and South Africa to exercise a legitimate right under the Agreement Establishing WTO to ensure supply of medical products to fight COVID-19 at an affordable price”, said K.M. Gopakumar, legal advisor, Third World Network.

Leena Menghaney of Medecins San Frontieres (India) said they welcomed the proposal from South Africa and India to the WTO TRIPS Council, calling for the waiver of intellectual property such as patents to address COVID-19.

“It is crucial that other member governments of the WTO support this, as we need to ensure that vaccines, drugs, and other medical tools needed for COVID-19 can be scaled up by countries and their manufacturers without facing protracted negotiations for licences”,’ the group said.

It added that in terms of IP and COVID-19, this was one of the biggest developments under international law.

Urgent legal amendments

The proposal also reported that some WTO members had carried out urgent legal amendments to their national patent laws to expedite the process of issuing compulsory/government use licenses.

“Internationally, there is an urgent call for global solidarity, and the unhindered global sharing of technology and knowhow in order that rapid responses for the handling of COVID-19 can be put in place on a real-time basis. In these exceptional circumstances, we request that the Council for TRIPS recommends, as early as possible, to the General Council a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19,” the proposal said.

The WTO had cautioned that the “pandemic represents an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and world trade, as production and consumption are scaled back across the globe”.

The proposal submitted that the waiver should continue until widespread vaccination was in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population had developed immunity.

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