Since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Assembly one year ago, the global landscape has changed significantly. What were once conceptual solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic have materialized into tangible innovation – including lifesaving vaccines and treatments – that are helping to combat the pandemic. Despite the remarkable progress, facilitated in part by intellectual property (IP) and driven by innovators, some delegates will continue to incorrectly portray IP as a barrier to access during the 74th World Health Assembly. Indeed, some delegates will focus on areas where the WHO lacks an explicit mandate and expertise, compromising the WHO’s ability to deliver on workstreams where it has unique capabilities to act. It’s time to change the dialogue – here’s why.
Innovation has delivered unprecedented progress in the fight against COVID-19.
With eight emergency use authorizations and approvals in the United States alone, effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are making their way to the world. In fact, about 1.4 billion people worldwide have received a COVID-19 vaccine as of mid-May. And innovators continue to find and improve upon solutions, with 548 unique therapies and 92 unique vaccines in 1,600 active trials across the globe.
A strong innovation ecosystem has driven this tremendous progress by allowing innovators to build on previous inventions, enabling a framework for public-private collaboration, and facilitating agreements to help competitors work together to produce and distribute innovations. And with COVID-19 variants and other health challenges continuing to pose a threat to global health and safety, we need to ensure innovators have all the tools possible to advance needed solutions.
As delegates convene relevant conversations during the World Health Assembly they need to focus on supporting the innovation ecosystem and uncovering solutions to the true underlying issues to access.
Some delegates at the World Health Assembly will claim that IP serves as a barrier to COVID-19 solutions. These critics have pushed to waive IP rights through the WTO TRIPS Council, which will only serve to undermine the current response and compromise safety.
Waiving IP protections will undermine the global response to the pandemic and compromise vaccine safety. Most importantly, it will not help save lives. That’s because the real barriers standing in the way of broader vaccine access – like trade barriers, and issues with infrastructure, distribution and health literacy – have nothing to do with IP. Further, there is no evidence that COVID-19 developers are broadly and unreasonably refusing licenses to their IP.
World Health Assembly delegates can strengthen the COVID-19 response and global preparedness for the next health challenge.
In order to deliver solutions to our world’s greatest challenges, the focus should be on facilitating – not hindering – policies which support innovation. Collaboration, including between the public and private sectors, is also key part of the path forward. The Director-General acknowledges that “WHO cannot achieve its health goals alone. In line with that vision, WHO has continually increased proactive engagement with various national and international partners.” By focusing on areas where the WHO has unique competence, like strengthening health systems in the developing world, strengthening global health security and promoting pandemic planning and response, and working with the private sector, delegates can unlock new ways to address our current challenges and prepare for what’s next.
As delegates convene relevant conversations during the World Health Assembly, such as around the pandemic learnings and Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (GSPOA), they need to focus on supporting the innovation ecosystem and uncovering solutions to the true underlying issues to vaccine access and equity. The world will come out of this pandemic stronger, and be better equipped to prepare for future needs, as a result.