Picture for Representation
Picture for Representation

Geneva: France joined the United States on Thursday in supporting an easing of patent and other protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic.

While the backing from two countries with major drug makers is important, many obstacles remain.

The move to support waiving of intellectual property protections on vaccines under World Trade Organisation rules marked a dramatic shift for the United States - and drew cheers from activists, complaints from Big Pharma, and a lot of questions about what comes next. Washington had previously lined up with many other developed nations opposed to the idea floated by India and South Africa in October.

Attention is now turning to those richer nations -- notably in the European Union -- and France was the first to voice its support. "I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property," French President Emmanuel Macron said on a visit to a vaccine center.

But he also expressed doubt - as the pharmaceutical companies have - that even if patents are waived, the drug makers in places like Africa currently are not equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines - so donations of doses should be prioritized instead.

Another key hurdle remains: Any single country could block a decision at the WTO, a Geneva-based trade body of 164 member states, to agree to a waiver.

The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the US proposal - but cagily remained noncommittal for now.

"We are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver could help" end the crisis, she said in a video address. "In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains." That echoed the position of the global pharmaceutical industry, which insists a faster solution would be for rich countries that have vaccine stockpiles to start sharing them with poorer ones.

The industry insists that production of coronavirus vaccines is complicated and can't be ramped up by easing intellectual property protections. Instead, it insists that reducing bottlenecks in supply chains and a scarcity of ingredients that go into vaccines are the more pressing issues for now.

The industry also says an IP waiver will do more harm than good in the long run by reducing the incentives that push innovators to make tremendous leaps, as they did with the vaccines that have been churned out in a blistering, unprecedented speed to help fight COVID-19.

Supporters say a waiver would be important because it would allow manufacturers around the world to get access to the recipes for making the life-saving vaccines as well as the ingredients. They point to unused capacity - factories that could churn out vaccines but can't because of the intellectual property protections.

Some critics say developing countries have been seeking to water down those protections for years - long before the pandemic - and say it's not clear that there are any manufacturers standing by that are ready or able to produce COVID-19 vaccines. They note that the vaccines currently in the market can be incredibly difficult to make, and the know-how is a bigger obstacle to ramping up manufacturing.

Many experts and advocacy groups say any such waiver would need to be followed up by transferring the required technology to developing countries, too.

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Free Press Journal