COVID-19: On Fair & Equitable Benefit Sharing of Medical Products – Letter from Civil Society Actors

This letter was signed by 40 global and regional civil society organizations and networks, 228 national organizations and networks as well as 124 individuals from 77 countries.

CIVIL SOCIETY LETTER TO THE SECRETARY GENERAL OF THE UNITED NATIONS AND THE DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

COVID-19: Operationalizing Fair and Equitable Benefit Sharing of Medical Products

24th April 2020

Mr. António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization

Dear Mr. António Guterres and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 

We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to request the United Nations (UN) working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to operationalize fair and equitable benefit sharing arising from the sharing of SARS-CoV-2 digital sequence information and samples as recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (which has 196 Parties) and its Nagoya Protocol (which has 123 Parties). 

The CBD and its Nagoya Protocol are binding international instruments based on the principles of fairness and equity, linking access to biological resources with fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of such resources. These principles are endorsed by WHO Member States as they form the basis of WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework (PIP Framework), a multilateral instrument which recognizes the importance of sharing influenza viruses of pandemic potential on an “equal footing” with benefit sharing, considering both “as equally important parts of the collective action for global public health”. 

We are heartened by the sharing of COVID-19 samples with reference laboratories for rapid confirmation and analysis as well as the sharing of digital sequence information.[1] The first genetic sequence data for 2019-nCoV from China was freely and rapidly shared with the Global Initiative of Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID)[2]. Since then, samples and digital sequence information continue to be shared by developing countries. Mounting evidence that, like influenza, the CoV-2 virus is mutating as it spreads around the world implies an ongoing need for epidemiological surveillance to collect and sequence CoV-2 strains from around the world to ensure that any new treatments will remain effective. 

We recognize that sharing SARS-CoV-2 samples as well as sequence information continues to be pivotal for the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. But a collective global public health response requires fair and equitable benefit sharing on an equal footing.

WHO’s R&D Blueprint titled “A Coordinated Global Research Roadmap: 2019 Novel Coronavirus” agrees that “virus materials, clinical samples and associated data should be rapidly shared for immediate public health purposes and that fair and equitable access to any medical products or innovations that are developed using the materials must be part of such sharing” (“emphasis added”). The Blueprint also recognizes that “Access to the benefits of research is critical” and that the “scale up manufacturing of products (speed, access, cost)” is an important component of a successful implementation of the Roadmap. It further calls on research funding grants to “include clauses that promote timely sharing of research data relevant to the outbreak response”.

Despite the good intentions, it remains unclear whether and how these elements are being operationalized, with fair and equitable benefit sharing realized. 

We are very distressed over the scramble for medical supplies to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, with developed countries, especially the United States and European countries leveraging their influence and spending, at the expense of the needs of developing and least developed countries around the world.[3]

We are extremely concerned by the lack of guarantee from biopharmaceutical, and diagnostic companies to ensure rapid availability and affordability of medical products (especially diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines as they are developed and rolled out) to all in need in developing and least developed countries, and to ensure dissemination of manufacturing technologies to rapidly scale-up diagnosis and treatment. 

The UN General Assembly Resolution A/74/L.52 calls on the UN system “under the leadership of the Secretary-General, to work with all relevant actors in order to mobilize a coordinated global response to the pandemic and its adverse social, economic and financial impact on all societies”.  The UN Resolution  A/74 L.56 on “International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19” requests “the Secretary-General, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization, to take the necessary steps to effectively coordinate and follow up on the efforts of the United Nations system to promote and ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment needed to face COVID-19..”.

The spread of COVID-19 has already disproportionately impacted high risk populations including the elderly, the poor, the malnourished, those with pre-existing medical conditions and migrant workers. Women across the world are facing increased domestic violence and bearing a range of disproportionate socio-economic impacts. Timely access to diagnostics, medical treatments and potential vaccines for these populations require special attention, especially in developing and least developed countries. 

We urgently need the UN and WHO to take urgent steps to secure timely availability and affordability of medical products for developing and least developed countries. WHO’s PIP Framework sets a precedent for securing binding commitments from manufacturers in the context of a pandemic. However, the extensive outbreak of COVID-19 will require far more ambitious guarantees from manufacturers. 

Therefore we urgently call on the UN and the WHO to:

1. Secure binding commitments from biopharmaceutical companies and other manufacturers for the rapid supply of existing and future medical products, especially diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to developing and least developed countries at an affordable price.

2. Organize open platforms for the widespread and unconditional sharing of technology and knowledge including technical specifications, designs, blueprints and any other know-how to scale-up local/regional manufacturing of medical products required for COVID-19 response including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines; and towards that end to secure binding commitments from biopharmaceutical companies and other medical product manufacturers. 

3. Proactively coordinate and direct COVID-19 R&D by setting up an open innovation platform for the rapid public sharing of all research outcomes, knowledge gaps and problem solving, and towards that end secure binding commitments from entities and individuals engaged in the R&D.

4. Ensure that intellectual property rights do not affect or hinder efforts to curb the Covid outbreak[4]

cc. H.E. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande

President of the United Nations General Assembly

United Nations

cc. H.E Mona Juul

President of ECOSOC

cc. Ms. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

Acting Executive Secretary

Convention on Biological Diversity

cc. Ms. Michelle Bachelet

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


[1] https://us8.campaign-archive.com/?e=&u=c35eb4938c7246655f6384192&id=ed3642c7ae%23Corona

[2] https://mailchi.mp/who.int/influenzawho-newsletter-feb2020

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/world/coronavirus-equipment-rich%20poor.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=World%20News

[4] Article 55, 56 read with Article 103 of the UN Charter

For the list of signatories to this letter, please see the letter uploaded here.

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