It is hard to fathom why patent-sharing should seem a better option while the objective is low-cost and wide vaccine access.
The developed world’s—largely the EU and rich vaccine-making nations—intransigence on temporary patent-waivers for Covid-19 shows up all its talk of being committed to fight the pandemic together. Even as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had written boldly—in October last year, jointly with WHO director general Tedros A Ghebreyesus—that “none of us will be safe till everyone is safe”, the G20 seems to lack that boldness in its action. A Reuters report, citing a draft document from a recent G-20 summit meeting, shows the US push for temporary vaccine-patent waivers is likely to bear very little fruit; it was hoped the US joining India and South Africa—all three are part of the grouping— in this call would persuade the others. But, most of the other G20 leaders back “voluntary licensing”, of the kind that has allowed Serum Institute of India to produce Covishield, or the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The draft, Reuters reports, is not final, but given it has come about as a compromise against the backdrop of deep divisions over intellectual property rights, the stance is not likely to change. The EU and other leading vaccine-makers (likely excepting India) have called instead for “patent-pooling” or patent-holders sharing patents; while they insist this is still an “unfriendly move” for the pharma companies holding vaccine-IPR, it is less radical than a full waiver.
It is hard to fathom why patent-sharing should seem a better option while the objective is low-cost and wide vaccine access. Opponents of IPR-waiver have argued there is very little idle capacity to make the vaccines even if the waivers were to be granted, and that there could be quality issues. But, the global acceptance of India-made vaccines and the relatively short span within which the yellow-fever vaccine facility in Senegal came up show that these are not insurmountable challenges. One big reason there is vaccine inequity between the rich and poor nations is that the former have contracted a large chunk of the supply—high-income nations have over half of the confirmed doses contracted, while low-income nations hold under a tenth. No wonder, then, the wealthiest 27 countries/blocs account for 33% of the vaccination undertaken globally while they account for just 10.4% of the global population, as per Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
Some rich nations have talked about donating from their extra vaccine stock. While that is welcome, this succour may fall far short of what is needed. What makes the waiver-denying even more worrying is that, the G20 countries, have stepped back from their initial commitment of “full financing” of the WHO’s ACT Accelerator that seeks to provide testing, vaccine and therapeutics to poor nations. Instead, they have now talked of funding “with fair burden sharing”. Bear in mind, the Covax vaccine-access initiative under the ACT Accelerator requires $11.7 billion in 2020-21, while contributors had pledged only $9.1 billion till May 12. The ACT Accelerator, which requires $34 billion, has received pledges of only $14 billion so far. The G20 nations, specifically the EU and other European nations, need to realise the task at hand is to meaningfully control the pandemic, and not simply leave such action for another day.