Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO), tweeted on October 17 that the agency welcomes South Africa and India's recent proposal to ease international and intellectual property agreements on COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests in order to make the tools available to all who need them at an affordable cost.
What the WHO chief was talking about was the joint proposal the two countries had made before the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) earlier during the week. India and South Africa, along with Kenya and Eswatini, who joined as co-sponsors of the proposals later, wanted the TRIPS Council to recommend WTO's General Council to waive off certain key provisions under the Agreement on TRIPS to speed up the prevention, containment and treatment efforts against COVID-19 pandemic.
The sponsoring member nations argued that the absence of a waiver, existing protection for intellectual property (IP) rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information, may curtail non-IP holders from accessing knowledge and technology needed to scale up research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19.
The proposal came up before the TRIPS Council meeting last week, though a decision was not taken due to the absence of consensus among members. The matter will be pursued through informal consultations during the 90 day window WTO provides for such consultations.
The members who fully supported the proposal are known to include Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina, Tunisia, Mauritius, Mali and Mozambique.
The EU, US, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, UK, Canada, Australia and Brazil opposed the move.
A third group of 14 countries, including ones like China, Nigeria, Philippines, Turkey, Thailand and Equador, supported the proposal in general, but was open to further discussions on the specifics.
The WHO support to the broad idea of 'easing' IP restrictions is important as it implies putting the public health concerns over commercial rights.