The affluent countries account for less than 20 percent of the global population but hold 60 percent of the total confirmed vaccine orders – that’s well over 4.6 billion doses!
- Amid growing clamour against vaccine ‘apartheid’ or the inequity in access to jabs, US president Joe Biden announced a waiver on patent protection for vaccine production.
- The US move was welcomed by countries including India and South Africa which had sought this waiver since October 2020.
- Due to poor access, the rate of vaccination in the continent is gravely slow in low- and mid-income countries, some of which are currently seeing spike in Covid-19 cases.
- While the IP waiver is a welcome step, trade negotiations are likely to take time amid powerful opposition in pharma associations.
The Joe Biden Administration has announced a waiver on patent protection for production of vaccines. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses were important, at this point of time the main priority was to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative
Days earlier in a virtual interaction, Tai had underscored the point that addressing the issue of vaccine inequity is important not just from the point of view of public health but also from economic stand point.
The US move was welcomed by countries including India and South Africa which had sought this waiver, as well as the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). Pharma associations, as expected, were critical of the decision.
Concerns about Vaccine Apartheid
In recent weeks there has been a growing clamour with regard to addressing the issue of vaccine ‘apartheid’, or the inequity in access to vaccines. As of April 2021, the more affluent countries which account for less than 20 percent of the global population had bought 60 percent of confirmed orders – well over 4.6 billion doses!You will find more infographics at Statista
African leaders had red flagged the issue of lack of access to vaccination. Due to poor access, the rate of vaccination in the continent is gravely slow. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been at the forefront of the push to end vaccine apartheid.
‘… no one is safe until everyone is safe, so all of us must be treated equally across the world and vaccines must be treated as a public good, available at affordable prices right across the board.”South African President Cyril Ramaphosa
Vaccine Concerns from Global Covid-19 Hotspot India
The rise in daily cases and mortalities as a result of Covid-19 in recent weeks in India has further brought this issue to centre stage. India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer has been at the forefront on vaccine diplomacy but did not have a mass inoculation plan for its 130 billion population in time. More than 20 million Indians have been infected and in the month of April itself there were an estimated 40,000 Covid-19 casualties in the country.
The primary reason for India’s chaos is the unpreparedness of the government for the second wave which culminated in the virtual collapse of the healthcare system. Even in the national capital, there has been a shortage of beds and oxygen. However, India’s predicted third Covid-19 wave is being attributed to the slow rate of vaccination.You will find more infographics at Statista
Only 2 percent of the population has been fully inoculated with both doses, while less than 10 percent has received one dose. One of the reasons cited for the slow rate of vaccination has been India’s inability to ramp up its vaccine production which could be eased out if the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides an intellectual property waiver.
Why an IP Waiver is Essential
The only way for increasing vaccination is increasing production worldwide and for this an Intellectual Property (IP) Waiver is essential. The voices calling out vaccine makers and governments are from the top echelons of the global structure. Both the Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom, as well as Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have repeatedly made this point. Both Brown and Tedros said that removing a waiver during an emergency situation was essential and that this should be on the agenda of the G7 Summit to be held in June 2021 in UK.
South Africa and India have been seeking a waiver since October 2020, on certain provisions of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Growing pressure on the US to loosen up
There has been growing pressure on US President Joe Biden to address the issue of vaccine apartheid. This has grown in recent days and weeks. More than 170 heads of state including Nobel Laureates wrote to US President Biden in favour of removing US IP rules for production of vaccines. This includes former French President, Francois Hollande, Former British PM, Gordon Brown and Nobel Laureates; Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi. Furthermore, ten Democratic Senators have also written to US President Joe Biden to support the temporary waiver of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
In recent weeks, with the increasing number of cases in India, the Biden Administration has unequivocally stated that it will assist India in dealing with the Covid-19 tragedy unfolding in the country.
We believe that the pharmaceutical companies should be supplying at scale and at cost to the entire world so that there is no barrier to everyone getting vaccinated.Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor
Apart from President Biden and other senior officials from his administration who have assured all necessary help, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President, Dr. Anthony Fauci has asked pharmaceutical companies to either ramp up their production or by transferring their technologies.
You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President
Obstacles in the path of ending Vaccine Apartheid
Removing intellectual property restrictions was never going to be an easy task, given the pressure from numerous quarters, especially Pharmaceutical lobbies. Founder of Microsoft and philanthropist Bill Gates, in a media interview spoke against waiving patents.
It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines.Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates against Vaccine IP Waiver
Gates through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sponsored Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership which seeks to increase low-income countries’ access to immunization. Gavi runs the COVAX program with WHO. The program works to improve access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries. Likewise, in March a trade group PhRMA warned against an IP waiver. A number of Republicans have also argued against such a step and wrote a letter to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. On the political front, Germany is leading the global anti-waiver power bloc.You will find more infographics at Statista
In conclusion, while the IP waiver is a welcome step, there is a long way to go since negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) are likely to take time. The US and other developed countries should take all steps required to ramp up vaccine production, increase vaccination and specifically help in curbing the spread of Covid-19 in India and other middle- and low-income countries globally. Covid-19 left to wreak havoc and mutate in any one place is a grave threat to the entire globe.