US backs away from WHO move on access to Covid-19 treatments

The US has rejected wording in a World Health Organization resolution that backs the rights of poor countries to ignore patents in order to gain access to a Covid-19 vaccine or treatment.

Washington dissociated itself on Tuesday from elements of a motion passed by WHO members, saying that it sent “the wrong message to innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs”.

Many governments, particularly in Africa, fear they will be squeezed out by richer countries unless they can force companies that discover anti-Covid-19 therapies to share their intellectual property with manufacturers able to produce them cheaply at scale.

African ambassadors in Geneva, where the WHO is based, said US diplomats had sought to persuade them to support a dilution of language in the resolution, a proposal they had rejected. 

Washington did not vote against the resolution proposed by the EU and others but instead issued a statement that repudiated the wording of several parts of it, including three paragraphs relating to emerging Covid-19 therapies. These included references to the so-called Doha Declaration, in which World Trade Organization ministers said governments could overrule intellectual property in a public health emergency.

“The United States recognises the importance of access to affordable, safe, high-quality, and effective health products and the critical role that intellectual property plays in incentivising the development of new and improved health products,” the US said in an objection note. “However, as currently drafted, [the three paragraphs] send the wrong message to innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs.”

The move comes as US president Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the WHO unless it demonstrates its independence from China in an escalation of his efforts to blame Beijing for the virus emergency.

In a letter published late on Monday, Mr Trump warned that the US would permanently end funding to the international body if it failed to “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days”.

The US president castigated the WHO and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, its director-general, for “repeated mis-steps” in its coronavirus pandemic response that had proved “extremely costly for the world”.

Mr Trump accused the WHO of neglecting to share information about the initial Covid-19 outbreak in China, failing to press Beijing sufficiently for answers, and of making “grossly inaccurate or misleading” claims about the disease. The WHO has previously denied the allegations.

The resolution over patents is being discussed at a virtual two-day meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, which concludes on Tuesday.

“The US made some input trying to water down the references to Trips and patenting,” said one west African ambassador to Geneva, referring to Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. “The US is certain they will be the first to get the vaccine, but it might not be true.”

Illustrating the concerns about richer countries getting earlier access to any vaccine, Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of the research group Medicines Law & Policy, said it took a decade for African countries to get affordable Aids medicines, during which time millions of people died.

“What we have seen in the past is that high-income countries rush to the front of the queue and leave the rest of the world to fend for themselves,” she said. 

The US and other nations with strong pharmaceutical sectors, including the UK, Switzerland and Japan, had wanted language explicitly referring to the Doha Declaration removed from the resolution, according to an early draft seen by the Financial Times.

They wanted instead to emphasise the role of intellectual property in promoting innovation and to encourage equitable access to any Covid-19 vaccine or treatment through voluntary mechanisms, including donations and partnerships.

The debate over intellectual property is part of a broader tussle between China and the US over who develops a vaccine first and how it will be distributed.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, on Monday appeared to back the position of developing countries, when he said any vaccine “will be treated as a public good”.

In an address to the World Health Assembly — itself controversial because of US accusations that Beijing covered up the initial Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan — Mr Xi said China would donate $2bn over two years to respond to the crisis, especially in developing countries.

The White House described the Chinese offer as a “token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations . . . to tell the truth and warn the world of what was coming”.

John Ullyot, the White House National Security Council spokesman, added that “as the source of the outbreak, China has a special responsibility to pay more and to give more” to the global health body.

Diplomats said Washington had pushed strongly for language calling for an independent investigation “at the earliest possible opportunity” into the WHO-led response to the outbreak.

In a letter seen by the Financial Times, African ambassadors in Geneva said attacks on the WHO’s Mr Tedros “from some quarters” had an “unfortunate racial overtone”. In the letter, first published in Africa Confidential, a specialist newsletter, the ambassadors said in an apparent dig at Washington that “failures at the national level should not be attributed to the WHO”. 

In April, Mr Trump said the US would suspend funding of the WHO. Some diplomats thought an independent inquiry could be a precondition for Washington to resume contributions. Mr Trump on Monday did not comment on the Chinese announcements but repeated his recent attacks on the WHO, saying it was “a puppet of China”.

Follow David Pilling and Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @davidpilling and @dimi

* This article has been amended since original publication to correct the affiliation of Ellen ‘t Hoen

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