The COVID-19 Voluntary IP Platform

WHO said today, it intends to formalize Costa Rica’s proposal for what has loosely been referred to as the COVID-19 technology pool. This is expected to be a “voluntary” mechanism. The voluntary nature of this “platform” is being seen as a dampener for the goal of equitable access in defeating this pandemic, by some stakeholders.

In its letter dated March 24th  (first published by KEI), Costa Rica had suggested:

“The creation of a repository of existing knowledge related to diagnostic tests, devices, drugs or vaccines, which would be available in the form of patents, both granted and in process; test data provided to regulatory authorities, expert knowledge, cell lines (cell cultures), copyrights and designs for the manufacture of diagnostic tests, devices, drugs or vaccines. The aim is to guarantee their free access and use by member countries”

It has been pointed out that the Costa Rican proposal, first met with much enthusiasm, aspired for WHO to take the lead and push for a binding, mandatory mechanism. As things stand today, the voluntary nature of this mechanism, to an extent, betrays the lofty ambitions of these expectations. (Supporters had also sent an open letter to WHO to create a global pool of these rights.)

There is a perception that WHO is fighting shy of taking the lead in contributing towards the creation of a legally-binding “international mechanism” for a COVID-19 technology pool.

WHO said today, this initiative will be formally launched on May 29, 2020. It is not clear, why this mechanism was not anchored within the upcoming World Health Assembly next week. At the weekly press conference on the pandemic, top WHO leaders clarified that other member states are still negotiating with Costa Rica the formalities of joining the initiative. In today’s call, it was announced that Chile has joined the initiative.  

The “text” of what is potentially a voluntary call to action has not been shared by WHO. It suggests that this text may still be under negotiation, or that it has, simply been put off till the formal launch of the event at the end of this month.  

Geneva Health Files has reviewed a version of this text of a “call to action” dated May 6, 2020 that has been described as a “final draft”, one that had not been “cleared”. Some elements of this text are discussed below. This was shared by a credible source.

(It is possible a newer version of the text exists, or that the text will be finalised in the days to come, before the launch at the end of the month.)

  • The document makes references to key relevant issues in its “preambular” language including the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, the recent UNGA resolution on access issues for COVID-19.
  • It calls on governments to take legal and policy measures, without naming specific treaties or what those legal measures could be.
  • While calling on governments, and other R&D funders to ensure research is published under open licenses, to allow access free of charge, it also mentions that “adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions”. Experts familiar with global health and IP law believe, the use of the word “limited” weaken this commitment.
  •  It calls on governments, R&D funders and the private sector to encourage open and collaborative approaches, however, limited to the pre-competitive drug discovery. Sources have pointed out why should there be a limitation only to the “pre-competitive” drug discovery stage.
  • There are also plans for a Global Databank, established by WHO. But it is not clear what this will mean – since the text reviewed, suggests that such a databank will hold only “references” to shared information.  
  • There is a definite push for voluntary licensing in the text. It calls on “holders of intellectual property rights to existing or new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines related to COVID-19 to urgently license such rights on a non-exclusive and global basis to the Medicines Patent Pool and/or other public health research and development mechanisms, consortia or initiatives…”

On today’s announcement, Health Policy Watch has already reported that

“The pool will be built off of the Medicines Patent Pool, an existing UN mechanism funded by Unitaid that pools voluntarily released patents for essential medicines, and then licenses the patents to generics manufacturers. Both the MPP and Unitaid’s Boards have released open letters supporting the Costa Rica initiative, endorsing a temporary expansion of MPP’s mandate to include all COVID-19 related vaccines, diagnostics, drugs, and other technologies.”

The UNAIDS statement on the “People’s Vaccine” earlier in the week said, “Ensures mandatory worldwide sharing of all COVID-19 related knowledge, data and technologies with a pool of COVID-19 licenses freely available to all countries. Countries should be empowered and enabled to make full use of agreed safeguards and flexibilities in the WTO Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health to protect access to medicines for all.”

And here is a section of the UNITAID statement release earlier in the month

“Finally we need to ensure equitable access to these new tools and make sure all those who need them, can access them. In that regard, we should learn from the positive experience of the Medicines Patent Pool in making HIV treatments available to most of those who need them and support the implementation of a global voluntary pooling mechanism for Covid19 related technologies, as proposed by the President of Costa Rica.”

This is an evolving story, one that will be followed.

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