US support for a waiver of IP on vaccines comes at the right time and must be pushed through at WTO
The United States administration’s support to an intellectual property waiver proposal on Covid-19 vaccines reflects the solidarity and leadership that governments need to show now, as the pandemic takes its highest toll yet with over a lakh people dying globally every week. The proposal was made last year by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization, where they called for a temporary waiver on intellectual property protection given to Covid-19 linked medicines, diagnostics and vaccines. And while the proposal garnered support from over 100 countries, it was opposed by a few developed countries. Support from the US , which has traditionally backed IP, is expected to swing the scales in the direction of the waiver, but it also needs to come in faster. All 164 members will need to come on board, following which the negotiations begin on framing the duration and context within which the IP waivers are allowed.
Big Pharma is obviously unhappy with the WTO move and has been lobbying hard against the idea. But this is not the time for them to show their greedy side. The world needs an estimated 10-15 billion doses of Covid vaccine now and there is simply no way that the existing vaccine-makers will be able to meet this demand in the near future. Besides, IP waiver does not mean that Big Pharma will lose — they will still earn their royalty from those producing their vaccines. Nobody grudges the pharma companies their reward for innovation but that should be balanced against the pursuit of monopoly profits. The ask is for only a temporary suspension of IP during the pandemic period. Vaccine makers will need to share IP and collaborate with quality vaccine companies across the world to make and supply vaccines, especially to severely under-served nations during this period. The unfortunate reality is that a lion’s share of the vaccine supply has been cornered by developed countries at the cost of the poorer ones. It is the needs of these countries that the India-South Africa proposal seeks to address. It should also be pointed out here that public money has funded the development of almost all the vaccine candidates in the market now and it is only fair that Big Pharma bow to the needs of governments.
That said it is not as if vaccine availability is going to increase any time soon due to the move. The proposal has to pass the WTO and if the vacillating stand of the European Union is any indication, there are challenges that it will need to surmount. Even assuming that the WTO does pass it, there are a number of other hurdles that need to be surmounted not the least of which is the complex supply chains for the vaccine ingredients which Big Pharma can exploit to delay the implementation. Governments should be alert to these manipulations and not hesitate to collaborate to neutralise such moves. Ultimately, it should be remembered that nobody is safe until everybody is safe and vaccines seem the best way to ensure that for now.