New Delhi: Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met last week and continued their resistance towards India and South Africa’s proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) and patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines.
Instead, vaccine makers have offered alternatives such as technology transfer and licences — Serum Institute of India, for example, manufactures Covishield under a licence from AstraZeneca, which developed it with Oxford University researchers — to boost the global immunisation effort.
The proposal for IP and patent rights waiver was first introduced at the WTO in October 2020 and has met with opposition from the United States and Europe.
The European Union has said “undermining or upending the intellectual property rights is a no-go as they represent a major contribution to expanding production of Covid-19 vaccines”.
India, meanwhile, has argued that inadequate access to vaccines could be a grave concern.
“Going by current trends, vast pockets of the human population will remain beyond the reach of the reach of a vaccine for the foreseeable future, giving the virus plenty of room to continue circulating and mutating,” India said at a WTO meeting last week.
Experts predict that it may take up to two years before a significant number of people in low-income countries are vaccinated. Owing to these concerns, the proposal by India and South Africa has found support among low-income countries.
At least 58 countries have co-sponsored this proposal, including Egypt, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the Maldives.
What is a vaccine patent?
Patents give vaccine makers exclusive rights to manufacture the shot they developed. They are also free to charge a price that covers their research and development costs, but deep profit margins can be controversial during times of crisis, such as the ongoing Covid pandemic. A patent waiver would allow any company with the required capacity to start manufacturing the shot, even without an agreement with the original developer.
India and South Africa’s proposal suggests that patents on different Covid vaccines be waived until there is widespread vaccination and most parts of the world develop herd immunity.
India and South Africa are seeking temporary relaxations for intellectual property and patents under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also known as TRIPS Agreement of the WTO.
Why are vaccine patent waivers needed?
As of February, an order of 8.6 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines had been confirmed, according to an editorial in Nature magazine. Out of this, 6 billion doses, the article said, were meant for high and upper-middle-income countries. Poorer nations, which account for at least 80 per cent of the world’s population, would have access to less than one-third of the available vaccines, it added.
Richer countries, which are also home to many of the vaccine makers, have placed large orders with them.
Along with developing countries, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is also in support of vaccine companies waiving patent profits. In an opinion piece for The Guardian in March 2021, Ghebreyesus wrote: “Sharing doses, boosting manufacturing by removing barriers and ensuring that we use data effectively to target left-behind communities is key to ending this crisis.”
The WHO chief also “appreciated” India for sharing doses with other countries and supporting Covax, an alliance that aims at ensuring vaccines are shared fairly across countries.
“Flexibilities in trade regulations exist for emergencies, and surely a global pandemic, which has forced many societies to shut down and caused so much harm to business — both large and small — qualifies. We need to be on a war footing, and it’s important to be clear about what is needed,” he wrote.
What are vaccine companies offering
Many vaccine companies have reportedly warned US officials that getting rid of patents temporarily for Covid vaccines could result in handing over the underlying technology to China and Russia.
“Companies have warned in private meetings with US trade and White House officials that giving up the intellectual property rights could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA,” a 25 April report in The Financial Times noted.
The breakthrough mRNA technology underlying some Covid vaccines helps trigger the creation of Covid antibodies in the human body without introducing any part of the virus into recipients.
There are also concerns that patent waivers will “disincentivise” pharmaceutical companies from vaccine innovation.
“The only time the majority of pharma IP-owning countries (such as the EU, the US and the UK) seem to form a united front, despite their internal wrangle over vaccine supply, is when they defend the global intellectual property regime that favours their national pharmaceutical corporations at the WTO,” noted Hyo Yoon Kang, co-convenor of LLM specialisation in IP law at the University of Kent Law School, UK.
In pursuit of accelerated vaccine manufacturing and production across the globe, companies have offered different alternatives to patent waivers. For instance, AstraZeneca, in June 2020, shared their licence so that vaccines can be manufactured at multiple sites to increase production. It forged agreements with Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi the Vaccine Alliance and the Serum Institute of India.
In October 2020, Moderna released a statement where it announced that it would “not enforce” Covid-related patents. “We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible,” it said.
However, some say this won’t be of much help.
“Moderna saying it will not enforce its vaccine patents during the acute phase of the pandemic is of little help if the company doesn’t share its know-how to allow others to produce the vaccine,” Olivier Wouters, Assistant Professor of Health Policy at the London School of Economics, said.
In January 2021, French Pharmaceutical company Sanofi announced that it had arrived at an agreement with BioNTech — the biotech firm with which Pfizer has partnered to devise its vaccine — to supply its vaccines to the European Union. The French company will help manufacture 125 million doses of the shot.
In another statement released Monday, Sanofi announced that it would help make over 200 million doses of Moderna’s Covid vaccine. Like for Pfizer, Sanofi will perform “fill and finish work” for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, which includes putting the vaccine solution into vials and packaging it.
In April 2021, Russia announced that it would be offering free technological transfer of its Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, to India.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)