A laboratory technician at a university hospital conducts research for a vaccine against COVID-19 in Bern, Switzerland. Photo by: Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

BRUSSELS/MANILA — The World Health Assembly meets virtually on Monday, with the question of equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatment and vaccines at center stage.

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Costa Rica wrote to the World Health Organization in March, urging it to help pool rights to COVID-19 technologies, data, and knowledge, including vaccines. The proposal follows the WHO-led Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, a global commitment to accelerate the development, production, and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics for COVID-19.

“The idea is to make available, for everybody around the world, the different advancements or innovations [on COVID-19],” Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada told reporters Friday. “To put those into service at the lowest cost, without any rivalries, to protect people.”

With over 4.5 million cases and more than 300,000 deaths worldwide, the international community is working to fast track the development of a vaccine against COVID-19, and speed up finding a viable treatment against the disease. Alongside these efforts are growing calls for equitable access to these technologies, which has been a challenge in past pandemics.

Given the spread of COVID-19, calls for access to these technologies are no longer limited to low-income countries. The U.S. government’s alleged offer to buy a German vaccine developer, and French company Sanofi’s since-retracted statement that first access of any vaccine it produces would go to the United States, which helped finance early research and development, caused outrage.

The virtual launch of WHO’s accelerator last month was attended by world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, showing their support for the initiative.

Mariângela Simão, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals, said at WHO’s press conference Friday that the platform proposal from Costa Rica is “complementary to the ACT accelerator because it provides an operational framework for not only sharing knowledge, data, related to COVID technologies, but also the opportunity to do a repository on open licensing.”

But Simão said that the Costa Rica initiative, also backed by Chile, is only being “pre-launched” for now.

“We still have several member states which are in negotiation with Costa Rica and required a little bit more time to finalize the call to action,” she said. The platform’s official launch is slated for May 29.

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Simão said a WHA resolution would address part of Costa Rica’s proposal, “for example, ensuring equitable access, supporting of COVID-related knowledge, lessons learned, experience, best practice — these are part of the resolution as it is at the moment.”

Member state negotiations in the lead up to Monday’s truncated version of the WHA centered on a European Union-led resolution, which includes references to the Costa Rica proposal.

A draft of the resolution, which would not be binding, includes a call for international organizations and other relevant stakeholders to “work collaboratively at all levels to develop, test, and scale-up production of safe, effective, quality, affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines for the COVID-19 response, including, existing mechanisms for voluntary pooling and licensing of patents to facilitate timely, equitable and affordable access to them, consistent with the provisions of relevant international treaties including the provisions of the TRIPS agreement and the flexibilities as confirmed by the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health.”

Ellen 't Hoen, a lawyer and director of research group Medicines Law & Policy, told Devex that more non-state actors, such as industry and research institutes, are expected to join the Costa Rican initiative before May 29, while the WHA resolution is only between states.

't Hoen argued the platform proposal is significant “because while we hear political leaders who are now pledging vast amounts of money to the development of new vaccines and other health products urge that these products should be ‘global public goods,’ none has proposed how to achieve this. The COVID-19 [technology platform] will be a vehicle to make it happen.”

‘t Hoen said she was optimistic that the Costa Rican initiative would be successful, but that “the obstacles lie with politicians that do not have the guts to support the proposal because they fear it may upset the industry.”

About the authors

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.
  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.