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A patient receives treatment at a hospital in Indonesia

Covid-19 patients get treatment in an emergency tent on July 18, 2021 in Bekasi, Indonesia. (Photo: Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)

'A Race Against Time': Doctors Without Borders Implores Rich Nations to Stop Stalling Patent Waiver

"As the virus continues to claim millions of lives around the world, we cannot afford to lose more precious time."

Jake Johnson

Ahead of a crucial World Trade Organization meeting on Tuesday, the global humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said it is imperative that rich countries stop stonewalling negotiations over a temporary patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines as the ultra-contagious Delta variant ravages poor and under-protected regions.

"Pharmaceutical corporations' business-as-usual approach is intolerable."
—Dr. Tom Ellman, Doctors Without Borders

"It is outrageous to see countries blocking the TRIPS waiver that is desperately needed as an important tool to remove legal barriers and allow production to be scaled up by multiple manufacturers for critical Covid-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines," Dr. Tom Ellman, director of Doctors Without Borders' Southern Africa Medical Unit, said in a statement Monday, referring to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

"As many countries in Africa right now are reporting a high number of deaths due to the spread of new and existing variants of Covid-19," said Ellman, "these governments are in dire need of vaccines, diagnostics, oxygen, and other treatments to help save lives of critically ill patients."

The statement came as the WTO General Council, the organization's highest-level body, prepared to convene this week for its final meeting before breaking for the European summer holiday. As Bloomberg reported Monday, "Next week World Trade Organization delegates are planning to depart Geneva for their August break and, in doing so, pause their fractious debate over a proposal to waive intellectual-property protections for Covid-19 shots until the second week of September."

"Before they leave," Bloomberg noted, "members will adopt a report that acknowledges they've made scant headway on the proposal."

First introduced by India and South Africa in October, the TRIPS waiver aims to boost global vaccine supply by temporarily lifting intellectual property protections that have barred manufacturers around the world from producing generic vaccines.

While backed by more than 100 WTO member nations, the proposed waiver has been mired in fruitless talks for months as powerful rich countries—including Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada—remain opposed to suspending patents, leaving much of the developing world without access to life-saving shots.

According to the World Health Organization's vaccine equity database, just 1.32% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated, compared to 50.15% of people in rich nations.

Global public health campaigners have argued that by helping pharmaceutical companies maintain monopoly control over vaccine technology and production, wealthy nations are prioritizing corporate profits over ending the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than four million people worldwide.

While rich countries and pharmaceutical giants have emphasized recent vaccine donation pledges and bilateral production deals, critics say such piecemeal approaches will not be enough to manufacture and evenly distribute the 11 billion doses necessary to end the pandemic.

"At a moment when we are in race against time to save lives and control the spread of unchecked transmission and development of new dangerous variants, pharmaceutical corporations' business-as-usual approach is intolerable," Ellman said Monday. "With potentially promising treatments in the pipeline, opposing countries must stop filibustering the waiver proposal and support it to cover not just vaccines, but also treatments, diagnostics, and other health technologies."

Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy advisor for Doctors Without Borders' Access Campaign, echoed that message.

"As the virus continues to claim millions of lives around the world, we cannot afford to lose more precious time.”

The WTO General Council meeting will come after an informal gathering of the organization's TRIPS Council ended last week without any progress toward a deal on the proposed patent waiver.

"With so many lives on the line, profits and patents must come second."
—Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization

Amid the stalled negotiations, the world is undergoing what WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has characterized as "the early stages of a third wave," with lower-income nations with low vaccination rates bearing the brunt of the crisis.

As the New York Times reported Sunday, "Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation, this month overtook India and Brazil in the number of daily cases, becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic."

"Hundreds of children in Indonesia have died from the coronavirus in recent weeks, many of them under age 5, a mortality rate greater than that of any other country and one that challenges the idea that children face minimal risk from Covid-19," the Times continued. "The jump in child deaths coincides with the surge of the Delta variant, which has swept through Southeast Asia, where vaccination rates are low, causing record outbreaks not only in Indonesia, but in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam as well."

During a speech at a WTO-WHO dialogue on vaccine manufacturing last week, Tedros said that the international community must "spare no effort to increase vaccine supply" for poor countries that have been denied access for months as pharmaceutical companies sell of most of their supply to rich nations.

"We need to dramatically scale up the number of vaccines being produced," Tedros continued. "This pandemic is an unprecedented crisis that demands unprecedented action. With so many lives on the line, profits and patents must come second."

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