At the recent virtual World Health Assembly (WHA), health ministers and other leaders focused on the coronavirus pandemic, with a central agenda item being the adoption of a European Union-proposed resolution on COVID-19. One hundred and forty-four countries co-sponsored the text, which echoed some important themes in support of innovation, public-private partnership and addressing access barriers for treatments and vaccines. The resolution set important parameters for the response of the World Health Organization (WHO) to COVID-19.
The resolution repeatedly underscored the need for all parts of society, including the private sector, to collaborate to effectively address the pandemic. This theme was amplified by civil society groups that support innovation, as exemplified by a joint declaration signed by IP Progress partners Free Market Foundation, Institute for Competitiveness, and Property Rights Alliance, and other think tanks from across the globe.
The declaration of these groups calls on governments to implement specific measures related to trade and innovation to “save lives and prepare countries for future pandemics and public health challenges.” In support of innovation, the document states that “it’s imperative that governments recognize intellectual property does not constitute a barrier to access to medicines but is in fact a vital enabler for the existence of medicines. As such, governments should eschew issuing compulsory licenses on coronavirus therapies and instead commit to cooperating with the private sector in the quest for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.”
“It’s imperative that governments recognize intellectual property does not constitute a barrier to access to medicines but is in fact a vital enabler for the existence of medicines.” – Joint Declaration excerpt
After the World Health Assembly resolution was adopted, the United States delegation raised similar points. In its statement, the United States encouraged other governments “to engage with innovators to find mutually-acceptable solutions that achieve increased access to affordable, safe, effective, and high-quality COVID-19 health products.”
The United States also pointed to some of the language in the resolution that incorrectly framed intellectual property as a barrier to access, including problematic references to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that some countries interpreted as referring to compulsory licensing. “By taking an unbalanced and incomplete approach to the issue of access to medicines and TRIPS,” the United States asserted, “this resolution misses an opportunity to galvanize the world, beyond bureaucracy and UN bodies, toward the critical goal of accelerating research, development, distribution and access to affordable, safe, quality and effective COVID-19-related products.”
The United States also responded to various proposals for voluntary pooling of patents related to COVID-19, emphasizing that this should be “limited to voluntary mechanisms existing before the COVID-19 pandemic” and underscoring the that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as the UN agency with technical expertise on intellectual property issues, should “play an appropriate role in their operation and evolution.”
The United States deserves great credit for encouraging policies at the World Health Organization (WHO) that are inclusive and balanced, especially when it comes to intellectual property. As the world continues to collaborate to address COVID-19 and other global health challenges, facilitating innovation – the key driver of progress – remains critical. And by ensuring voices from the private and public sectors are well represented, we are best positioned to enable innovation to reach those who need it most.