Open letter: COVID-19 underlines the need for 37 World Trade Organization members to reverse a critical decision

As the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), we have signed an open letter asking 37 World Trade Organization members to declare themselves eligible to import medicines manufactured under compulsory license in another country, under 31bis of TRIPS Agreement.

Below is a summary of the background and letter. This is published in full by Knowledge Ecology International (KEI). 

Back in 2001, the World Trade Organization (WTO) began negotiations on the rules regarding patents and access to medicine. Negotiations took nearly two full years to adopt. 

In August 2003, a complicated, and controversial, resolution was made in regards to conditions and procedure of waiving export restriction, on medicines and diagnostic tests manufactured under a compulsory license.

Among the controversial features was the definition of an “eligible importing member”, which allowed WTO members to declare themselves ineligible in to import in some cases or in all cases. In 2017, this decision became a formal amendment to the TRIPS agreement. 

Today 37 members of the WTO are listed as ineligible to import medicines manufactured in another country under a compulsory license. 

The ability of countries to import and export these technologies may prove critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as under future health emergencies.

The current WTO rules are flawed in several ways. The restriction on exports had the practical effect of making it very difficult for a country with a small market or a lack of domestic manufacturing capacity to benefit from compulsory licensing. It also made goods manufactured under a compulsory license more expensive, by limiting the economies of scale that could be achieved by selling goods globally.

On April 7, 2020, more than 30 groups and three dozen experts on health, law and trade sent an open letter to those 37 WTO members. 

One reform that clearly should be addressed immediately is for countries to notify the WTO that they have changed their policy and now consider itself an eligible importing country, and in addition, to also use whatever legal means are available to revoke the opt-out as importing members, for goods manufactured under a compulsory license.

Read in full on KEI.