REQUEST

Kenya asks WTO to suspend patents for Covid-19 drugs

Governments have traditionally taken steps to overcome practices by corporations to keep prices artificially high.

In Summary

•The request seeks to avoid the HIV tragedy of 20 years ago when thousands died from Aids because they could not afford medication. 

• Doctors Without Borders urged Kenya to rally support from other governments who are not yet backing this landmark move.   

A sample is collected for a Covid-19 test from a Nandi resident on July 2, 2020.
SWABBING: A sample is collected for a Covid-19 test from a Nandi resident on July 2, 2020.
Image: MATHEWS NDANYI

Kenya has formally asked the World Trade Organization to waive certain intellectual property rights for Covid-19 treatments.

The request seeks to avoid the HIV tragedy of 20 years ago when thousands people in poor countries died from Aids because they could not afford the patented HIV medication. 

The WTO will consider the landmark request in its talks taking place today.

In 2001, at the height of the HIV-Aids epidemic, the "Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health" affirmed governments’ rights to take all necessary measures to eliminate patents and other IP barriers to prioritise public health over corporate interests.

This current waiver request to the WTO is a similar step to speed up the response to Covid-19.

It was put forward by India and South Africa, and sponsored by Kenya in October.

Non-profit Doctors Without Borders (MSF) urged Kenya to go one step further and use its influence to rally support from other governments, including wealthy nations, who are not yet backing this move.   

The IP waiver would allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other IP related to Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic, until global herd immunity is achieved.

At the last WTO meeting of the TRIPS Council (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) on October 15-16, Kenya and Eswatini joined India and South Africa in officially co-sponsoring the waiver.

Ninety-nine countries have welcomed and shown support overall. But the waiver proposal is not being supported by multiple wealthy nations, including the US, the UK, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union. 

“Not even a global pandemic can stop pharmaceutical corporations from following their business-as-usual approach, so countries need to use every tool available to make sure that Covid-19 medical products are accessible and affordable for everyone who needs them,” said Dr Sidney Wong, executive co-director of MSF’s Access Campaign.

Since the start of the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations have maintained their standard practice of rigid control over intellectual property rights, while pursuing secretive and monopolistic commercial deals that exclude many developing countries from benefitting.

 For example, Gilead entered into restrictive bilateral licensing for one of the only drugs to have shown potential benefit to treat Covid-19, Remdesivir, excluding nearly half of the world’s population from benefitting from price-lowering generic competition.

Additionally, several new and repurposed medicines and monoclonal antibodies being trialed as promising treatments for Covid-19 are already patented in many developing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, China and Malaysia.

And with the exception of one company, none of the Covid-19 vaccine developers have committed to treating IP any differently than the status quo.

Historically, governments have taken steps to overcome monopolies that have allowed pharmaceutical corporations to keep prices artificially high.