US President Joe Biden US President has advocated a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights of global pharma companies manufacturing vaccines
By Atul Aneja, Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha, SPS Pannu
In a major step that will earn him the wrath of American pharma giants, but respect and gratitude from the Global South including India, US President has advocated a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights of global pharma companies manufacturing vaccines.
The move will eventually imply a surge in vaccine production andensure availability of shots in the developing world at a cheaper price.
Biden’s bold step is a big victory, especially for India and South Africa, which in October had proposed that at the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) that patent rights for pandemic-related medical products should be temporarily waived. The move was subsequentlysupported by nearly 60 countries.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had discussed lifting the patent protections of coronavirus vaccines with Biden.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi also informed President Biden about India's initiative at the WTO for a relaxation in the norms of the Agreement on TRIPS to ensure quick and affordable access to vaccines and medicines for developing countries,” said the statement released after the talks. The relaxation would grant governments quicker and more affordable access to the life-saving doses.
Biden was also under pressure from lawmakers at home and governments abroad to join an effort to waive patent rules for the vaccines so that poorer countries can begin to produce their own generic versions of the shots to vaccinate their populations.
"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai said in a statement, “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines."
Tai cautioned, however, that negotiations "will take time given the consensus-based nature" of the WTO. But the United States would also continue to push for increased production and distribution of vaccines - and raw materials needed to make them - around the world, she said.
The statement assumes significance as earlier the US administration had imposed a ban on the export of vaccine raw materials at the behest of pharma giants such as Pfizer. This had slowed the vaccine production at the Serum Institute of India.
India's second Covid-19 wave has exacerbated the global shortage as the country was the world's biggest producer of vaccines and had exported them to as many as 80 countries. It now needs these shots itself to rein in the relentless surge in coronavirus infections.
The WTO meets again on Thursday, when the stand of the European Union and Britain is also expected to be made clear.
“As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts — working with the private sector and all possible partners — to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines,” the US statement added.
Big pharma upset
The Financial Times quoted Steve Ubl, the chief executive of PhRMA, a trade group representing pharmaceutical companies, as saying that that the waiver would “not save lives” and “does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms”. “In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Biden administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety,” said Ubl. “This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”
Pharma companies have previously warned that temporarily scrapping patents for Covid-19 shots would risk handing novel technology to China and Russia, FT reported.
WHO lauds move
But World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised the U.S. decision as a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19” that reflects the “moral leadership” of the White House in the fight to end the pandemic.
This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19. The commitment by @POTUS Joe Biden & @USTradeRep @AmbassadorTai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of 🇺🇸 leadership to address global health challenges. pic.twitter.com/3iBt3jfdEr— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) May 5, 2021
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, told the Financial Times the global health watchdog was “extremely encouraged” by the news. “Accompanied by . . . the scale-up of regional manufacturing capacity, this could be a game changer in the fight against this pandemic,” she said.
Earlier the Microsoft founder and CEO, who is also a big player in global health appeared to have emerged as the flag bearer for Big Pharma. The billionaire shocked the world recently when he appeared to completely reject vaccine justice. When asked in an interview with Sky News whether the patent law for Covid 19 vaccines needs to be changed in a bid to augment production, his curt reply, “no”, has horrified the world.
“There's only so many vaccine factories in the world and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so, moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine, say, from a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India, it's novel, it's only because of our grants and expertise that can happen at all,” he said.