South Africa and India have asked the World Trade Organization to waive some provisions in the international agreements that regulate intellectual property rights, to speed up efforts to prevent, treat and contain the COVID-19 pandemic and make sure developing countries are not left behind.
The countries argue, in a joint submission to the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights dated Friday, that without a rapid waiver of some existing safeguards for intellectual property rights, some countries - particularly developing ones that have been ``disproportionately impacted`` - would find it hard to access vaccines or medicines quickly.
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 1 million confirmed COVID-19 deaths, urgency has grown.
Leena Menghaney, who heads the access campaign in South Asia for international aid group Doctors Without Borders, called it ``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 licenses.''
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.
India's government and a spokeswoman for South Africa's health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. South Africa has been outspoken in the past about access to treatments, notably affordable drugs for HIV.
Africa's 54 countries have teamed up during the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue equitable access to any effective vaccine. An African Union communique in June said governments around the world should ``remove all obstacles'' to any vaccine's swift and equitable distribution, including by making all intellectual property and technologies immediately available.
The communique specifically mentioned the Doha Declaration on public health by WTO members in 2001, which refers to the right to grant compulsory licenses _ where a government can license the use of a patented invention without the consent of the patent-holder.
The African communique, read out after a continental conference on the quest for COVID-19 vaccines, states an urgent need for countries to ``make full use of legal measures ... to ensure monopolies do not stand in the way of access.'' It points out the ``barriers'' intellectual property rules have posed in the past to affordable vaccines in developing countries.
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.