South Africa, India, EU, US reach compromise on Covid-19 vaccine patent

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Thursday, 17 March 2022 18:44

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visits mRNA vaccine hub in Cape Town
An employee works with samples during a visit by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Belgium's Minister of Development Cooperation Meryame Kitir to a WHO-backed mRNA vaccine hub, in Cape Town, South Africa, February 11, 2022. REUTERS/Shelley Christians

The United States, European Union, India and South Africa have reached a consensus on key elements of a long-sought intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.

Any agreement must be accepted by the WTO’s 164 member countries in order to be adopted. If one country rejects the proposal, it could mean the end of the waiver.

If approved, the agreement would mean countries accounting for less than 10% of global exports of Covid-19 shots in 2021 could permit domestic manufacturers to produce vaccines without patent-holder consent for three or five years.

That would exclude China but clear India, which banned vaccine exports for much of 2021 after a wave that severely impacted the population.

The agreement would also cover Covid-19 vaccines, and after six months this would be revisited to potentially cover tests and therapeutics. This would benefit less economically developed countries that have struggled to gain access to an adequate supply of vaccinations.

Too little too late?

The agreement, first suggested by India and South Africa 18 months ago to the World Trade Organization, sought to suspend patents for successful Covid vaccines, treatments and diagnostics – invented by pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer and Moderna – for the duration of the pandemic. Moderna pulled in more than $12bn in 2021, and Pfizer reported 92% operational growth in revenue to $81.3bn for the full year 2021.

The continent has struggled to create its own vaccine manufacturers, but have come against obstacles, including accessing the recipe for the protected Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. The waiver would not cover technology transfer and trade secrets – something that human rights and development advocates believe will slow down developing nations’ vaccine production.

It is also important that it waves a vital article so production is not solely for domestic purposes. Removing that article means a country production vaccines can then export them to another eligible member.

Big pharma backlash

Activist groups like ONEinEU have criticised the waiver for not including all critical aspects of IP law, not just patents.

However, the wavier has come up against resistance from drug companies, including the Global drugmakers in the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) which said the move could prohibit their ability to respond to future crises.

The US Chamber of Commerce released a statement on Wednesday 16 March opposing the waiver. It said: “This proposal is fundamentally misguided and should be rejected. It ignores that the overwhelming problem is not vaccine production, it is last-mile delivery, and it will erode the ability of innovative companies to develop the cure for the next pandemic or global health threat.”

It continued: “Governments and international organizations should avoid political distractions and more quickly achieve comprehensive global vaccination against Covid-19, by focusing on real, practical ongoing issues with last-mile distribution.”

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