[Ip-health] Politico: WHO governing body narrows in on coronavirus response plan

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Wed May 13 07:48:27 PDT 2020


*WHO governing body narrows in on coronavirus response plan*

-- By Carlo Martuscelli and Ashleigh Furlong
5/13/20, 4:13 PM CET |

Ahead of the World Health Assembly next week
negotiators have agreed on a draft text that offers flexibility on how
intellectual property rights apply to future coronavirus drugs — a major
win for groups pushing for medicines access.

A last-minute objection could still scupper the agreement over the text,
which POLITICO saw on Wednesday. But interventions at this late stage are
considered unlikely — and significant if they do occur.

The resolution is the main agenda item of the two-day virtual gathering of
the World Health Organization’s (WHO) governing body.

The co-sponsors of the bill — which include the EU, the U.K., Australia and
Zambia — have agreed to the wording, which addresses The Agreement on
Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), an
international legal agreement between all the member nations of the World
Trade Organization (WTO).

The road to agreement, hashed out over virtual meetings in recent days, was
far from smooth. Negotiators had been deadlocked by disagreements among
member states over the wording on TRIPS flexibility and related concerns
about access to medicines and technologies to combat the virus, according
to four people with knowledge of the discussions.

Still, these sort of delays are business as usual for the WHA, said Ellen
‘t Hoen, a researcher at the Global Health Unit of the University of

The final text calls for “the universal, timely and equitable access to and
fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable
essential health technologies and products including their components and
precursors required in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a global

It then calls for the “urgent removal of unjustified obstacles thereto,”
stating that this is “consistent with the provisions of relevant
international treaties including the provisions of the TRIPS agreement and
the flexibilities as confirmed by the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS
Agreement and Public Health.”

Including this language around TRIPS — which wasn’t in an earlier version
was a flashpoint, ‘t Hoen explained, because “it’s basically code language
for compulsory licensing.”

Now “even code language is becoming contentious,” she added.

The practice of compulsory licensing allows governments to circumvent
patent protection for medicines in certain urgent circumstances so they can
manufacture what they need. In response to the pandemic, a number of
countries, including Germany
have eased their requirements should they need this authority.

By contrast, the U.S. had led the opposition against any conciliatory
wording to compulsory licensing, while other countries, including Japan and
Switzerland, had also expressed opposition to the wording, ‘t Hoen noted.

The U.S. — which has been heavily critical of the WHO’s handling of the
crisis, and suspended funding
says it doesn’t want to see references to these flexibilities, ‘t Hoen
said. Washington’s worry is that it may lead the WHO to encourage countries
to use them.

James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, said it’s
“incredibly bad policy to block open licensing calls in the WHA
negotiations, and a sign of excessive power by a handful of drug and
vaccine company lobbies, not public sentiment on this issue.”

“If any of the countries want preferential access to a drug or vaccine,
they can use their economic power,” said Love. “But they don’t have to make
it illegal or impossible for everyone else to manufacture the product.”

TRIPS isn’t the only area where the U.S. has had a heavy hand in asking for
changes, said Katy Athersuch, medical innovation and access policy adviser
at Médecins Sans Frontières. There’s also the issue of technology sharing,
with countries such as Indonesia, India and Bangladesh having pushed for
clear wording on the sharing of data and know-how for health technologies
related to the coronavirus.

Those countries are “asking for universal non-exclusive and open licensing
and there’s strong reservations coming back from parts like the European
Union,” she said.

Also contested is language on “immunization as a global public good for
health,” said Athersuch. Some countries had called instead for a “business
as usual” approach, she noted, which she called “staggering” given how the
world will need to respond to the virus.

For now, those supporting more progressive wording have prevailed. The
final text calls on member states to “share COVID-19 related knowledge,
lessons learned, experiences, best practices, data, materials and
commodities needed in the response with WHO and other countries, as
appropriate.” It also refers to immunization against the virus as a “global
public good.”

This tentative agreement on the text will be welcome news for WHO Director
General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has faced significant challenges
securing a coordinated response from member states. Cash is also an issue,
as the body disclosed last week
it needs some $1.3 billion to finance its COVID-19 response plan.

Related stories on these topics: Coronavirus (in Health Care)
, Coronavirus (in Trade)
, Drug and device safety
, Global health
, Infectious diseases
, Medicines (in Health Care)
, Medicines (in Trade)
, Vaccines
, Germany (in Health Care)
, Germany (in Trade)
, United States (in Health Care)
, United States (in Trade)
, World Health Organization (WHO)

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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