Vaccine patents protection should be waived

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - May 8, 2021 - 12:00am

Since last October, about 100 developing countries led by India and South Africa have been pressing the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive the protection on the patents and trade secrets of COVID-19 vaccines. The objective: to boost the production and equitable distribution of the vaccines worldwide.

Vaccine production has run into various technological and raw ingredients supply difficulties. Distribution has been inequitable. As of early last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the rich countries had secured 87 percent of the 700 million-plus vaccine doses globally dispensed, while the poor ones like us received only 0.2 percent.

Until early this week, the United States, Britain, the European Union and other developed countries had blocked the developing nations’ pressure on the WTO to act on their waiver demand.

Last Wednesday, however, the US took a reverse stand: President Joseph Biden declared his administration’s support for the waiver proposal.

Biden apparently took into account the following factors: the severity of the global pandemic crisis; the justifiable demand of the majority of WTO’s 167 member-nations; the open letter, issued last month by 170 former heads of state and Nobel Prize laureates, asking him to support the proposed waiver; and the urgent appeal signed by 10 US senators (led by progressive Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and 100-plus House Democrats to “prioritize people over pharmaceutical profits” (Pfizer reported $3.5-billion vaccine revenue in this first quarter).

Perhaps, more personally important to Biden, it would fulfill his promise as presidential candidate last year that he would “absolutely positively” commit to sharing technology and access to a COVID-19 vaccine if the US developed one ahead of other nations. American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer partnering with German BioNTech has done that, followed by another US firm, Moderna.

A statement issued by US trade representative Katherine Tai, at a two-day WTO meeting, reads: “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The (US) administration strongly believes in intellectual property protection but, in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO needed to make that happen.”

The WTO negotiations, however, may take some time, given that decision-making in that body is through consensus. Furious debates and lobbying on both sides are expected to come into full play.

WHO head Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus promptly welcomed the US move, commending it as a “historic decision for vaccine equity, prioritizing the wellbeing of the people everywhere at a critical time.”

“Now let’s all move together swiftly, in solidarity,” he said, to build on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists, who produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), a consistent campaigner for the waiver, said: “Countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver… must now take actions too, and decide to put peoples’ health before pharmaceutical profits and waive [intellectual property rights] on all COVID-19 medical tools, including vaccines.” Specifically, the MSF referred to the EU countries, Britain, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan and Brazil.

On Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded positively. The EU, she said, was “ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner… how the US proposal for a waiver on IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines can help achieve that objective.” Meantime, she beseeched “all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports [of their productions].”

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has reportedly reversed his stance on the matter. The Guardian quoted him as saying he was “absolutely in favor” of the patent waiver, whereas earlier he had alleged that a waiver would discourage innovation.

The GAVI vaccine alliance (a co-leader of the WHO’s Covax equitable free doses-sharing project), called on the US to help vaccine manufacturers transfer their know-how urgently to boost global production. It stressed the significance of the Biden administration’s commitment to work towards increasing vaccine raw material production, which “will have an immediate impact on alleviating current global supply constraints.”

Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister who now heads a panel reviewing the WHO’s handling of the pandemic, declared Biden’s move a gamechanger. Speaking on the BBC, she remarked: “When the US moves, it is such a powerful signal. One could expect the UK, the EU, Switzerland and others that have been obstructing the discussion on the waiver need to say, ‘Yes, we are prepared to negotiate.’”

Pharmaceutical firms that have received billions in public money, Clark suggested, must now spread technology to boost vaccine output worldwide. They need to recognize that vaccines are a public good, she added, warning the firms to cooperate or be prepared for “heavy-handed” treatment.

The WHO and the WTO, she emphasized, need to urgently convene the countries that have funded the vaccine researches and the pharmaceutical-owning countries to forge an agreement on speedy voluntary licensing and knowledge/technology transfers.

Meeting in London, the Group of 7 richest countries’ foreign ministers failed to agree on a common position. Instead, their action plan generally proposed greater funding for the Covax Facility and for voluntary licensing and technology-transfer agreements.

The big pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, are saying “don’t look at us!”

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Association claims that waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions to the pandemic. Their arguments: 1) Pharma firms have already shared technology with qualified producers around the world that could produce billions of doses to inoculate peoples, if governments smooth out trade barriers and remove export controls on raw ingredients. 2) Rich countries are hoarding vaccines; if they agreed to give away or share them equitably, the crisis would be less acute. And 3) Patent rights are crucial to spur innovation and investment that lead to new products.

Filipinos would surely benefit a lot if more vaccines become available here, and now. Let’s hope the issue is resolved in favor of the world majority.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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