Patent-waivers or pandemic: The EU must not block patent-waivers for Covid vaccines

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July 05, 2021 6:15 AM

As per Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, close to 3.2 billion Covid vaccine-doses have been administered till July 4, but the wealthiest nations and regions are receiving the shots more than 30 times faster than the poorest.

This undermines the exercise to keep vaccines affordable for low-income nations.This undermines the exercise to keep vaccines affordable for low-income nations.

The EU—chiefly vaccine-major Germany—hardening its stance over temporary patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines at the WTO is antithetical to all the talk of its leaders on global cooperation to beat the pandemic. While, last month, there were reports of widespread support at the G7 meeting for text-based negotiations on the India-South Africa proposal for TRIPS waiver, now, the EU wants its proposal to be considered on an equal footing. The EU sees a better alternative in limiting export restrictions and compulsory licensing under the TRIPS Agreement, among other things. It calls on vaccine-producing nations to be ready to export a fair-share of their domestic production (the EU currently exports half). Bear in mind, this comes against the backdrop of the US’s restriction on key vaccine ingredients that got lifted only last month. The other element, of compulsory licensing, can be invoked in case of national emergencies and other situations of extreme emergency—only when the TRIPS-asks on voluntary licensing don’t apply. Though the EU has exhorted nations to “encourage producers to expand production”—entering into voluntary licensing agreements could be one way to do this—it has also said that WTO member-governments must agree that the pandemic is an exceptional circumstance of national emergency for every nation and go forward with compulsory licensing. Any any such licence, of course, must cover exports to countries that lack manufacturing capacity, including via the WHO’s Covax facility. That may see a rational way forward, but the fact is that, per Article 31h of the TRIPS Agreement, the patent-holder will have to be adequately remunerated, “taking into account the economic value of the authorization”. This undermines the exercise to keep vaccines affordable for low-income nations.

As per Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, close to 3.2 billion Covid vaccine-doses have been administered till July 4, but the wealthiest nations and regions are receiving the shots more than 30 times faster than the poorest. The US accounts for 10.9% of the global vaccinations, while its population is a mere 4.3% of the global population. Similarly, Germany accounts for 2.4% of the vaccinations while housing 1.1% of the global population. The corresponding figures for France are 1.8% and 0.8%, while that for the UK are 2.5% and 0.9%. Contrast this with Nigeria (0.1% and 2.6%) and Bangladesh (0.3% and 2.2%). At the current average global vaccination per day, reaching 75% coverage for the global population will take seven months. The EU, at its average daily rates, will get there in 2 months while India is estimated to take 12 more months. Many African nations will need upto 10 years at their current daily average rate! While administrative efficiency has a significant role to play, so does availability of vaccines. To that end, this newspaper has argued earlier, patent-waivers are a necessity. Indeed, the argument about lack of idle capacity that can be put to use immediately—forwarded to show a waiver will be futile—is flawed given how developing countries have already demonstrated that they can quickly set up new capacity for vaccine production.

India, for its part, will perhaps need to relook the scope of the patent waiver sought. The Times of India reports that even the US, that has supported patent waiver for vaccines, is uncomfortable with what India and South Africa have sought—patent-waiver for other Covid-19 essentials, including masks, oximeters, therapeutics, etc.

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