Activists have warned that a COVID-19 vaccine could be hoarded by rich countries in a race to inoculate their populations first. Some countries including Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. have ordered hundreds of millions of doses of potential vaccines even before clinical trials have shown they are effective.
Poorer countries, whose economies have been shattered by the pandemic, are not in a position to place such bets. With the world surpassing one million confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the urgency has grown.
South Africa and India are seeking waivers to rules that relate to copyright, industrial designs, patents and the protection of undisclosed information or trade secrets, and they propose that the waiver be in place “until widespread vaccination is in place globally” and most of the world has developed immunity to the coronavirus.
The countries say there are “significant concerns” about whether new treatments and vaccines being developed for COVID-19 would be made available promptly and affordably to meet the global demand.
The letter says the existing flexibilities written into the rules might not be enough, and could result in legal difficulties for developing nations. Countries with a limited capacity to manufacture pharmaceuticals are particularly vulnerable, and this could make the process of importing and exporting medicines “cumbersome and lengthy,” it says.
“Internationally, there is an urgent call for global solidarity, and the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how in order that rapid responses for the handling of COVID-19 can be put in place on a real time basis,” the letter says. It asks that the council urgently approach the WTO’s high-level decision-making body, the General Council.
Drug companies have said they need to protect their intellectual property to fund their expensive research. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has supported a COVID-19 technology access pool where IP and data can be shared voluntarily.