US Backs Plan to Waive COVID-19 Vaccine Patents

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  • Manufacturers kick
  • WHO hails ‘historic’ support

United States President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.

India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organisation to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines — a move pharma giants oppose.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington “supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines” to end the pandemic.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.

Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding shots.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, called the US decision “historic” and said it marked “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID19.” 

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Some COVID-19 vaccines bottles on display. Photo: USATODAY.com

Tai cautioned however that negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature” of the WTO.

With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts “to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” and will work to “increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.

But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warned the move could hamper innovation.

“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as “disappointing.”

Countries such as New Zealand, however, welcomed the US announcement, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the move “tremendous news,” adding that it would help his country manufacture mRNA vaccines locally.

France, on the other hand, has said it is opposed to the waiver, stating it prefers instead a donation-based model to help poor countries overcome a lack of vaccines.

While the United States has reached the point of offering donuts and beer to entice vaccine holdouts to get their shots, India reported 3,780 new pandemic deaths and not enough doses to inoculate its people.

India has in recent weeks endured a devastating surge in coronavirus cases, with more than 380,000 infections reported on Wednesday.

The Indian government’s principal scientific advisor, K Vijay Raghavan, said the country of 1.3 billion people had to prepare for a new wave of infections even after beating down the current wave, which has taken the country’s caseload above 20 million.

To boost the country’s collapsing health system, India’s reserve bank announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals, and health firms.

India’s crisis has been partly fueled by a lack of vaccines. This has in turn exacerbated the global shortage as India is the world’s biggest producer of COVID-19 vaccines.

In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing programme, COVAX.

But there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Denmark, where the spread of the virus has been deemed under control, will open up cinemas and theaters plus gyms and fitness centers Thursday. And bars, cafes and restaurants, which have already reopened, will no longer require reservations.

All patrons, however, must present a “corona pass” certificate confirming they have either tested negative in the past 72 hours, been vaccinated, or recently recovered from COVID-19.

The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide since it first emerged in late 2019, but many wealthy nations have made progress in suppressing the virus as mass vaccination campaigns gather steam.

More than 1.2 billion doses have been administered globally, but fewer than one percent in the least developed countries.

Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the United States, which could soon be sitting on as many as 300 million extra doses — nearly equivalent to its entire population.

Drug manufacturers kick

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The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations expressed disappointment on Wednesday at the United States’ decision to support a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

“As we have consistently stated, a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the lobby group said in a statement, describing the US move as “disappointing”. 

“Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis,” it continued.

Instead, IFPMA argued, governments should be focusing on eliminating trade barriers as well as “addressing bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of raw materials and ingredients” for producing COVID-19 vaccines.

Proponents of doing away with IP rights, such as the governments of India and South Africa, say it could lead to more companies in more countries producing vaccines, providing broader access in poorer nations.

But pharmaceutical industry bodies have insisted that removing intellectual property protections or pressuring companies into technology-sharing, could actually slow down vaccine production.

IFPMA chief Thomas Cueni told reporters last month that an IP waiver “wouldn’t give us the tools to produce more doses of vaccines”.

He added that around 275 manufacturing deals, including on technology transfer among staunch competitors, had helped the industry go from zero to one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses already produced, with the goal of 10 billion doses by the end of the year.

Other pharma industry figures have pointed to the unknown consequences of transferring technology to manufacturers who may not employ stringent quality and safety standards.

Stephane Bancel, head of vaccine-maker Moderna, has meanwhile argued that “if we have more players coming into the space, (they will be) taking more of the raw materials away from people (positioned) to make vaccines for this year”.

WHO hails ‘historic’ decision

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World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday hailed the United States’ support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, describing it as a “historic decision”.

The WHO chief wrote on Twitter that the move was a step towards vaccine equity, “prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time”.

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

Tedros has for months pleaded for such a patent waiver — an idea backed by India and South Africa — arguing this would help to ramp up production and make Covid-19 vaccines much more accessible for poorer nations.

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“If not now, when?” has become a frequent refrain from the WHO chief, who has lashed out repeatedly against perceived vaccine-hoarding by richer nations.

Tedros clashed repeatedly with former US president Donald Trump, who began withdrawing his country from the WHO before President Joe Biden immediately rescinded the move upon taking office in January.

A later tweet from the WHO chief on Tuesday appeared to confirm that things had got off to a better start with Biden.

“This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19,” he said of US support for the patent waiver, describing Biden’s commitment as “a powerful example of leadership to address global health challenges”.

(AFP)

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