A solution to the vaccine waiver dilemmaTuesday, May 11, 2021
We welcome the United States' decision to support the waiving of intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines, which could expand the global supply of boosters and lower prices to the benefit of poor countries.
The waiver, as announced by US Trade Representative Ms Katherine Tai at the World Trade Organization (WTO), was first proposed in October 2020 by South Africa and India, and is a potential game-changer.
There has been vigorous and consistent opposition from American pharmaceutical manufacturing companies which spent a record US$92 million to lobby the federal Government in the first three months of 2021.
Ms Tai was careful to state: “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but, in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
Opposition is not confined to the US, as there are reservations in Europe. The move is preliminary and will not guarantee that the patent rules will be lifted in the immediate future as this would require a decision by consensus in the WTO.
But the Joe Biden Administration's signal of support amounts to a major step that aid and non-government organisations have been pressing for, beginning with a call for affordable drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.
The waiver request did not succeed, but under the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for HIV/AIDS have become more affordable and available in recent years.
The pharmaceutical companies' position against the waiver is based on the following: They can supply all the drugs that are needed; making the data on the COVID-19 vaccines public would give away intellectual property of US pharmaceutical firms and disincentivising companies to make the necessary investment in the development and manufacturing of new drugs; and that even with a waiver it would not immediately increase the supply of vaccines to poor countries, due to the complexity of the manufacturing process.
There is an obvious geopolitical dimension to the issue of the vaccine waiver. The West is also concerned about the expanding influence of China and Russia selling or donating their vaccines to other countries in need.
Logically, we think, the answer to inadequate supply is not different or equitable schemes of distribution, but increased production.
The pharmaceutical companies, it is reported, are operating at maximum productive capacity, with production concentrated in a few countries.
By March 3, 2021, some 413 million doses had been produced, led by China (145 million); the US (103 million); Germany and Belgium (71 million); and India (43 million).
It seems to us that the pragmatic approach to increased vaccines should be to license production to as many countries as possible where suitable manufacturing facilities exist or can be installed quickly.
Cuba has demonstrated that even a poor, developing country can manufacture vaccines. The profit to be earned by Cuba would be less, but supply would increase and price would decrease.
Developing countries should be enabled to purchase vaccines by grants from a global humanitarian facility fund by diverting resources from other air projects such as climate change.
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