FPJ Edit: Intellectual property rights stand between the vaccine and us in the developing world

A vaccine stands between life and death today but intellectual property rights stand between the vaccine and us in the third world. Should western pharmaceutical companies which have developed Covid vaccines hold on to their patents even if it means a delay of two to three years in the vaccines reaching developing nations?

Covid has already claimed 2.5 million lives and scientists warn that this delay could be catastrophic. In fact, many experts believe that the time already lost is the primary reason why a second wave hit us with such ferocity after the success of initial containment measures. However, pharmaceutical companies have refused to share their vaccine technology and intellectual property rules prevent countries from creating their own generic versions of the vaccines.

What this means is that we are restricted to the supply chains of the patent-holder company. Because of this impediment, we are using just a fraction of the world’s potential global vaccine manufacturing capacity.Is this profit over people’s lives? Commerce over coexistence or even over common sense? This is the unresolved issue as we approach April 26, World Intellectual Property Day.

Earlier this month, India and South Africa raised this issue at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting, where our Trade Minister Piyush Goyal made a case for the Covid vaccine patents to be waived temporarily. In fact, the proposal, first tabled in October 2020, is now officially backed by 58 sponsoring governments, with around 100 countries supporting the proposal overall. However, the move has been blocked by a small number of countries, including the UK and the US, as well as by the EU and Japan, Australia, Canada and Switzerland.

It is the classic rich versus poor situation. Wealthy countries such as the UK have bought enough vaccines for their populations almost three times over. The irony is that developed countries talk about global solidarity but refuse to remove monopolies on Covid medical tools that would save the world from this pandemic. One is reminded of M K Gandhi: 'The world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed.'

It is estimated that 11 billion doses of vaccines are needed to immunise at least 70 per cent of the global population. Of these 11 billion, orders have been confirmed for 8.6 billion doses, of which a substantial 6 billion is for high and upper-middle income countries, says an analysis in Nature, the world's leading multidisciplinary science journal. In fact, half the doses administered so far have been in Europe and North America, while poorer nations -- which account for 80% of the global population -- have access to less than one-thirds of the available doses.

Goyal warned the WTO that an inequitable global Covid vaccination programme could prolong the pandemic for many years through cycles of mutation and may cost the global economy trillions of dollars in lost output and fiscal/monetary stimulus. Even Sheikh Chilli would see the folly. Recently, a group of 175 eminent personalities, including Nobel laureates and former world leaders, wrote to US President Joe Biden, seeking urgent action to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines.

Even Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the independent medical humanitarian organisation, has urged the rich countries that continue to block a landmark waiver on intellectual property during the pandemic to immediately reverse their obstructive tactics and allow formal negotiations at the WTO to start. This blinkered approach on patents gives rise to criticism of the World Intellectual Property Day as a lobbyists’ day. Civil rights activists say that it is intended to promote ever greater protectionism and mercantilism in favour of patent holders.

India knows this only too well, having fought US firms that were granted patents for neem, turmeric and basmati rice.On the other side, the World Intellectual Property Day is used by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a self-funding agency of the United Nations, to highlight the role of patents, copyright, trademarks and designs in promoting invention and innovation.

In the present case, pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca-Oxford and the makers of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V have invested significant resources into researching, inventing and gaining approval for the vaccines. The market prices of these vaccines range from Rs 750 to Rs 3,000 per dose.

However, as noted economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out, pharma firms have already made considerable profits through public funding made available for vaccine research.Wealthy countries are now playing the charity card. The UK, for instance, says it is supporting immunisation in low-income countries through Covax, a global vaccine procurement scheme. However, it is too little and too slow.

Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy adviser at the MSF’s Access Campaign, hit the nail on the head when he said: “Governments that oppose the monopoly waiver proposal know that simply asking pharmaceutical corporations to voluntarily do the right thing will not get us anywhere, when these attempts have so far failed to secure global access to COVID-19 medical tools for people who urgently need them. It’s time for change, not charity.”

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