Covid-19: Patents waiver crucial to vaccinating the world

Protection of billions of people in low-income countries matters more than the profitability of big pharma

While 54.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine, mostly in developed countries, only 6% of people in low-income countries have received at least one jab, according to Our World in Data.
While 54.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine, mostly in developed countries, only 6% of people in low-income countries have received at least one jab, according to Our World in Data.

The indefinite postponement of the 12 Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a setback for developing countries as critical issues that affect them hang in the balance. An important one is the fate of a Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Waiver proposal floated by India and South Africa when a new variant, Omicron, is fast spreading amidst considerable inequity in the access to vaccines for low-income countries. There is no doubt that a faster rollout of vaccines will help fight the Covid-19 pandemic that has so far afflicted 250-million-plus people globally. While 54.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine, mostly in developed countries, only 6% of people in low-income countries have received at least one jab, according to Our World in Data.

India and South Africa’s proposal seeks to address the shortfall in production and availability of vaccines for the Global South. A temporary waiver of IPR protection enables countries to use compulsory licences without the consent of the patent holder to produce and export low-cost Covid-19 vaccines and medicines to countries that cannot manufacture them. This proposal has garnered the critical support of more than 100 countries at the WTO, while developed countries in the EU, the UK and Switzerland have blocked it. Big pharma is opposed to any temporary waiver as it will discourage innovation and reduce their profits. Instead of resisting a waiver, big pharma can respond to this pandemic with licensing agreements to vaccine manufacturers in India and South Africa, for instance. But the problem is that global vaccine makers—barring Moderna that is negotiating agreements with countries with manufacturing constraints and Pfizer’s mRNA technology owned by BioNTech that has been licenced to Fosun Pharma to make vaccines in China—are reluctant to grant voluntary licences to the South.

Big pharma can also help by delivering low-cost vaccines through Covax, the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi and the World Health Organisation. While developed nations are contemplating booster doses for their citizens, Covax is experiencing a 70% shortfall in delivery of vaccines for low-income countries in 2021. The concern is that a substantial number of vaccines might become available only in end-2022 and 2023. In March, a setback to Covax was when Serum Institute of India, the largest low-cost producer of vaccines globally, cut off contracted supplies to boost domestic vaccine production. But the good news is that SII’s exports are resuming. Pfizer says it has provided over 740 million doses—of which 100 million was a donation by the US government—to low and middle income countries in 2021 and has promised another 1 billion doses in 2022. But the challenges are daunting, of 4.65 billion doses needed by mid to low-income countries to vaccinate 70% of their population.

A temporary patents waiver, thus, is a crucial step to ramp up the production of low-cost Covid-19 vaccines and medicines for people in developing nations. Scientists warn that new variants are likely in the future if vast parts of the South remain unvaccinated. Developing countries, including India, must use the interregnum of the postponed ministerial to stay united and strengthen their negotiating positions on the patents waiver for a favourable outcome at the WTO. This multilateral body—which is seeking relevance in a world where bilateral and regional free trade agreements have proliferated—should address the needs of the developing world. It should demonstrate that protection of billions of people in low-income countries matters more than the profitability of big pharma.

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