The annual world health assembly, the forum through which the World Health Organization (WHO) is governed and an event which involves almost every country in the world, began (via videolink) on 18 May.
At the top of the agenda is, of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic, and of pressing concern are efforts by many nations to prevent certain others from monopolizing any potential vaccine and the IP attached to it. These efforts follow the recent statement by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in support of a Costa Rican proposal for an international patent pool for Coronavirus-related IP and test data. One country supporting the initiative is The Netherlands, with Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge telling the WHO: “We welcome the patent pool initiative of Costa Rica and WHO, strengthening the implementation of international health regulations and of health systems remain of vital importance”.
There is mounting concern that richer countries, in acting unilaterally to secure priority deals for any vaccine (something the US President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated he is working towards), will undermine international efforts to create, license, and distribute a COVID-19 drug. The EU has placed the sole resolution before this year’s world health assembly, explicitly calling for a patent pool, stating that “If we can develop a vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st century”. However, there has been disquiet in many quarters after the initial resolution was said to have been watered down in the face of pressure from the US along with the UK and Switzerland. For its part, the British Government said that “The UK has long supported affordable and equitable access to essential medicines, including in low and middle-income countries. We continue to support public-private partnerships for product development, and approaches such as non-exclusive voluntary licensing which promote affordable access for all while also providing incentives to create life-changing vaccines”.
With every country on the planet having a stake in the WHO’s continuing approach to the pandemic, and with the WHO already under significant and sustained scrutiny and criticism for its handling of the pandemic, the outcome of the annual assembly is likely to be met with a fresh round of recriminations and controversy.