The WTO leadership would have to work closely with the European Union, the U.K., Switzerland and Japan who had also opposed the proposal from India and South Africa.
By Sachin Chaturvedi
As per the prevailing expectations, President Biden and his administration has taken a decision that would go down in history as the most pragmatic response since the adoption of TRIPS in 1995. This is the decision the world needed all this while. It reminds of the substantive role that Nelson Mandela played during the HIV crisis. The ball is now with Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, Chair, TRIPs Council at the WTO.
This decision would mark a paradigm shift in the realm of intellectual property rights and access to vaccines. President Biden has chosen multilateralism over interests of private industry groups like the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) that have hitherto dictated US policy responses. The PhRMA is the drug industry’s main lobbying and trade group that has emerged as a pressure group.
This move by the Biden administration has given direct support to the proposal India and South Africa pioneered at the WTO, backing a waiver of intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Lifting patent restrictions means any company or government would be able to manufacture vaccines using public patents without risk of legal challenges by Covid-19 vaccine patent holders. The U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. would support a proposal working its way through the World Trade Organization.
India-South Africa Lead
The pioneering proposal led by India and South Africa Submitted on 2 October 2020 is being discussed at this point at the General Council of the WTO. Later the proposal got co-sponsored by Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group. In total 60 WTO members supported the proposal. As negotiations will be ‘text based’, a revised proposal will be presented, debated and hopefully adopted by all members of WTO
With this important proposal India and South Africa tried to minimise the scope of what happened when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) challenged Pfizer over its pneumococcal vaccine. With a patent in hand, Pfizer blocked development of alternative versions of the vaccine by SK Bioscience, which had developed a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV).
Affordability and ability to accumulate have led to a near ‘moral collapse’, as the DG, WHO Mr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rightly observed. Rich countries could secure several times more than what their whole populations require. By the end of February, the UK had enough doses to cover its population thrice, the US could cover its populations four times and Canada had 3338 million doses, much more than it required. While several poor countries have not received even a single shot.
The global efforts for equitable distribution are manifested not only through bilateral programmes like Vaccine Maitri, but also through the WHO coordinated COVAX. Just yesterday, the Government of Sweden announced sharing of 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with the COVAX Facility to provide life-saving vaccines to people at risk from COVID-19 in low income countries. It had initiated its programme with Ghana in February, when COVAX shared 600,000 shots.
Disruption in supply chains is the other factor that is also contributing to inequities. Lopsided distribution also exacerbates the pain and misery. In India, a lot of efforts have been made to explain why sharing of vaccines with others is part of Indian tradition of service and compassion; however, the same has not come forward from several of the Northern countries. The moral compass seems to have collapsed favouring ‘nationalism’ without realising that no one is safe till all are safe.
The TRIPs waiver is only the first step. We urgently need supply chains to come up and more production sites also need to be strengthened. It requires scale and large funding. Producing vaccines is not reverse engineering. It is a highly complex and extremely complicated technology-led process. It requires specialised facilities, skills and advanced infrastructure. Access to raw materials is another important issue that the US also has to address on a consistent basis. However, first and foremost is that now without losing anytime, the WTO should adopt the proposal. This should be followed up with technology transfer wherever required and sharing of technology through the platform created at WHO.
The role of the newly appointed WTO Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would be crucial in this respect. Being the former head of GAVI, she understands the dynamics of vaccines quite well. She had been talking about transfer of technology and large scale production. The WTO chief made her remarks at the General Council of WTO on 5 May, where the issue of intellectual property and access to essential COVID-19 medicines and medical equipment is being addressed.
The WTO leadership would have to work closely with the European Union, the U.K., Switzerland and Japan who had also opposed the proposal from India and South Africa. Brazil is still grappling with the bill that is there with their President. In the interests of humanity this is the right moment for WTO and its members to pursue global public health over patents and profits from them. The USA has taken the right step which is absolutely necessary and should result in a solution that is commensurate with the gravity of the Pandemic crisis.
(The author is DG, RIS. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. )