More support easing vaccine patent rules, but hurdles remain

Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis, said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.The industry also says an IP waiver will do more harm than good in the long run.

PTI | Geneva | Updated: 06-05-2021 23:48 IST | Created: 06-05-2021 23:48 IST
More support easing vaccine patent rules, but hurdles remain
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Several world leaders on Thursday praised the US move to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations by suspending patent protections on the shots. But it wasn't clear if that would actually lead to the measures being lifted — and what it would mean if they were.

Activists and international institutions cheered but Big Pharma fired back after the US reversed course Wednesday and called for a waiver of intellectual property protections. If even just one country votes against a waiver at the World Trade Organisation, it would be sunk. The Biden administration move made the US the first country in the developed world to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa in October. And the vocal support that followed from French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday suggested that countries were reassessing their positions. “I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” Macron said at a vaccine centre. Like many pharmaceutical companies, Macron also insisted that a waiver of intellectual property rights will not solve the problem of access to vaccines. Those protections give companies that developed vaccines special rights about how the know-how is used — and by whom. Even if those protections are eased, manufacturers in places like Africa are not now equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines — so donations of shots should be prioritized instead, Macron said.

Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — all companies with licensed COVID-19 vaccines — did not comment, though Moderna has long said it will not pursue patent infringements during the pandemic.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the urgency of moving fast now.

Many leaders praised the move — though not all said they would ultimately support it themselves. India, as expected, welcomed it. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the US position “great news” and South Korean officials say they ware paying close attention — but neither country's leaders would say if they would endorse it. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the US announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines. But Premier Mario Draghi was more circumspect.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would support it.

In closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months, Australia, Britain, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the US opposed the waiver idea, according to a Geneva-based trade official.

Some 80 countries, mostly developing nations, have supported the Indian and South African proposal, the official said. Brazil was the only developing country to oppose it, while China and Russia — two other major COVID-19 vaccine makers — didn't express a position either way but were open to more discussions, the official said. While Macron was forceful, others in Europe were not. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the waiver idea, but remained noncommittal for now and emphasised that the bloc has been exporting vaccines widely — while the US has not. That echoed the position of the global pharmaceutical industry, which insists a faster solution would be for rich countries that have vaccine stockpiles to start sharing them with poorer ones. Several European leaders also underscored that.

“All countries around the world where vaccines are produced must be prepared to export it to others too,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn. “The EU stands ready in word and deed.... We are happy if the US is, too, now.” EU leaders said the bloc will start discussing whether they should join the US move, possibly at a summit that starts Friday.

The industry has resisted the waiver, insisting that production of coronavirus vaccines is complicated and can't be ramped up by easing intellectual property protections. Instead, it says that reducing bottlenecks in supply chains and a scarcity of ingredients that go into vaccines are the more pressing issues for now. “Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis,” said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

The industry also says an IP waiver will do more harm than good in the long run. Easing patent protections would eat into their profits, reducing the incentives that push innovators to make the kind of tremendous leaps they did with the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been churned out at a blistering, unprecedented pace.

Critics and supporters have disagreed on the impact listing the patent restrictions would have.

Backers of the waiver say that won't be enough, and that there are manufacturers standing by who could make the vaccines if they were given the blueprints. Intellectual property expert Shyam Balganesh, a professor at Columbia Law School, said a waiver would remove “a lot of the bureaucracy” around WTO rules, but it would only go so far because of other bottlenecks in the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines.

But activists and public health advocates cheered the US move. “A waiver of patents for #COVID19 vaccines & medicines could change the game for Africa, unlocking millions more vaccine doses & saving countless lives,” WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tweeted.

Just over 20 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent, which counts some 1.3 billion people.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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