Africa: MSF Joins Activists Pushing to Break the Stalemate Ahead of Critical WTO Meeting this Week

As governments prepare to discuss the ‘TRIPS Waiver’ at the World Trade Organization (WTO) this week, our MSF team, along with treatment activists and civil society organisations, are protesting today outside the embassies of Belgium, the Netherlands and the US in Tshwane, the executive capital of South Africa, calling on these governments to break the impasse and fast-track the negotiations on the TRIPS Waiver so it is adopted at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference at the end of November.

The groups are urging the US to play a more proactive role in steering the negotiations to reach a consensus and swift agreement, following the government’s statement of support for the TRIPS Waiver in early May.

“We have gathered outside the embassies of Belgium and the Netherlands to relay a clear message to EU countries to stop stonewalling on this critical waiver and stop putting multinational pharmaceutical corporations profiteering over human lives,” said Candice Sehoma, South Africa Advocacy Officer for MSF’s Access Campaign.

“Even though France, Greece, Italy and Spain have already come out to support the waiver, another handful of governments in the EU with strong pharmaceutical corporation ties is choosing to put shareholder interests over the lives of people across the globe. We are calling on supportive EU countries to show real leadership and convince their neighbours to do the right thing so that the EU as a whole finally gets in line and supports the TRIPS Waiver.”

The landmark TRIPS Waiver proposal was originally put forward by India and South Africa one year ago and is now officially backed by 64 sponsoring governments, with more than 100 countries supporting overall. It offers an expeditious option to overcome the legal barriers during the pandemic and could pave the way for diversified supply and production so that more affordable and sustainable access can be guaranteed.

However, despite dozens of statements by supporting governments emphasising the Waiver’s urgency and importance, the proposal has been effectively stalled by a small number of opposing governments, including the European Union (primarily Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden), plus Norway, Switzerland and the UK.

“The US made a big, bold decision to support this groundbreaking TRIPS Waiver, but is now largely absent from the global effort to make it a reality,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA. “This is a historic opportunity, and the US must play a leadership role. While the US now has plenty of tools to tackle COVID-19, people in many low- and middle-income countries are still suffering and dying without vaccines, tests, or treatments. We don’t have time to waste. The US must deliver on its promise and ensure that the TRIPS Waiver is adopted.

The world continues to witness global inequity in access to COVID-19 medical tools with high-income countries stockpiling and hoarding treatments and vaccines instead of allowing the fair distribution needed to end this pandemic. The US recently reserved 1.7 million treatment of the promising COVID-19 treatment molnupiravir, which, if approved, could be critical for reducing hospitalizations and deaths.

The molnupiravir case illustrates why the TRIPS Waiver is so desperately needed: While the US government funded the development of the medicine by Emory University, pharmaceutical corporations Ridgeback and Merck obtained the licensing and rights for the medicine. Instead of offering licenses widely to all competent manufacturers in different countries, a voluntary license signed in April 2021 only includes Indian generic companies and hinders countries like Brazil from being able to produce and import the API (raw material) and generic versions.

“We cannot welcome a voluntary license from Merck that deliberately blocks many middle-income countries from producing and supplying this drug on their own. It is crystal clear that unless legal tools like the TRIPS Waiver are adopted, many countries will continue to be at the mercy of patent-holding corporations that have the say over who gets to produce, who gets to buy, and at what price, while health ministries are already reeling from the rising costs of tackling COVID-19.

We say to the remaining blocking governments: the eyes of the world are really just on you now – so you should think about what side of history you want to be on when the books on this pandemic are written.”

For months, communities of Nzacko have fled their village and been unable to access humanitarian assistance due to insecurity. A few weeks ago, our MSF teams were the first to reach this town, whose story mirrors the crisis that the Central African Republic (CAR) has been experiencing for years.

As our staff and supply vehicles enter Nzacko on a late July evening, the landscape offers a succession of demolished buildings overgrown with vegetation, burnt-out cars, abandoned markets and shops. Silence reigns, in sharp contrast to the fury of the clashes that have resounded in this area for months.

Like so many other villages in CAR, Nzacko has been regularly confronted with attacks, lootings, extortion and destruction in the past decade. Its 15,000 community members have been trapped in a cycle of violence that dramatically affects their living conditions.

“During the delivery, there was only lemon to disinfect”

Rose*, 44, knows this all too well. Like other people from Nzacko, she has experienced the consequences of the collapse of her village and her country.

“In 2013, our lives were turned upside down,” she recalls. “Because of violence and massacres, we had to flee and hide for months. We didn’t have much to eat and my daughter started to get very sick. When we finally got back home, there was no food in town. My daughter suffered from malnutrition. We went to the health centre, but there was nothing there, and the nurses had fled to Bangassou. She died that night. With the help of our neighbours, we buried her a few metres from the house.”

Three years after this tragedy, Rose was about to give birth when massive clashes resumed in the village, resulting in the destruction of more than 10,000 homes and a new cycle of misery for the communities.
“I obviously couldn’t flee, and the health post was abandoned again,” she says. “The only midwife left in Nzacko came to my house to help me. She just had a plastic tarp and lemon to disinfect her scissors. There was not even any soap left. I gave birth on that tarp… But when my daughter was born, we didn’t hear her scream. We didn’t her cry. She died a few hours later. We buried her alongside her sister.”

This double tragedy haunts Rose and her family, who had to flee again in January when the clashes resumed, as they did everywhere else in the country following the presidential elections at the end of 2020.
“We were in the forest for four months,” says Jean-Marie*, Rose’s husband. “Once again, we struggled to find food. We were all very weak, especially the children.”

A village cut off from vital support

Like Jean-Marie and Rose, most of the people of Nzacko fled the village, living in very precarious conditions, unable to access humanitarian assistance because of the insecurity.

It is a critical situation, which has actually been going on for years.

“With the exception of MSF, few organisations have had access to the village since 2017 even though the situation there is worrying for things such as malnutrition and water-borne diseases,” confirms Pelé Kotho-Gawe, MSF nurse supervisor for the trip to Nzacko. “Even if our trips were short, we managed to get there. But with the resumption of fighting earlier this year, access has been made impossible.”

As clashes eventually ended, Rose, Jean-Marie and the rest of the population gradually started to return to Nzacko. In July, MSF was the first humanitarian organisation able to return to the village in order to assess needs and support the only existing health centre.

“When we arrived, we found out a health centre in shambles” says Pelé, who led the first MSF trip a few days earlier. “The pharmacy was empty. Equipment was non-existent or inadequate, and the staff were not sufficiently trained to provide adequate care to the population while needs were enormous. In the forest, malaria and malnutrition had taken their toll.”
Our team entering the village on this late July evening left early this morning from Bangassou, 190 kilometres to the south. It took more than 10 hours for the vehicles to reach their destination. In this rainy season, the road is muddy and crossing the river was not easy. Because of the storm, a tree fell on the road, forcing the team to get out the saws in the pouring rain and break down the tree to allow the vehicles to pass.

Our team arrived safely. The plan is to stay here for four days. Four days to restock the pharmacy shelves, conduct training for health staff and community health workers, manage medical consultations, install solar panels to provide the electricity needed to cool the vaccines. It is all part of a race against time given the number of patients squeezed into two poorly equipped wards, with cracked walls and narrow beds.

“She’s in good hands”
Lying on one of them, Octavia Braza, 33, is about to give birth to her seventh child. The contractions started more than three hours ago and she feels weak.