The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says US President Joe Biden‘s plan to back a waiver on intellectual property rights on vaccines to boost global production is a “monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19“.
- The waiver proposal was initially raised by India and South Africa
- The 164 members of the World Trade Organization must vote unanimously in favour of it to pass
- The US suppports the proposal, which is opposed by big pharmaceutical companies
Mr Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind a proposed World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from US Democrats and more than 100 other countries.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the battling the pandemic required extraordinary measures.
The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has repeatedly urged countries to support the proposal brought by India and South Africa at the WTO, wrote in a tweet that Mr Biden‘s support was a “powerful example of United States leadership to address global health challenges”.
WTO members met on Wednesday to assess signs of progress in talks on the proposal brought forward by South Africa and India.
They want to ease rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, in order to boost supply to developing countries.
The WHO said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2 per cent had been in low-income countries.
WTO decisions are based on consensus, so all 164 members need to agree.
Ten meetings in seven months had failed to produce a breakthrough, with 60 proposal sponsors from emerging economies, backed by a chorus of campaign groups, Nobel laureates and former world leaders.
The United States’ endorsement of the proposal now could pave the way for the proposal to be endorsed by all members.
The group is set to meet in October to again discuss the proposal.
HIV/AIDS pandemic behind proposal
The Indian/South African proposal says property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information hinder timely access to affordable vaccines and medicines essential to combat COVID-19.
Those in favour say the waiver should last for an unspecified time period, with an annual review until it terminates.
They have called for unhindered global sharing of skills and technology.
Proponents say there cannot be a repeat of the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when a lack of access to life-saving medicines cost at least 11 million African lives.
The Mr Ghebreyesus and 375 civil society and campaign groups such as Doctors Without Borders back the proposal as do former leaders like UK prime minister Gordon Brown and Soviet Union head Mikhail Gorbachev.
These two former world leaders had written to Mr Biden urging him to throw the United States’ support towards it.
Drug companies say IP waiver will not lead to more shots
Big drug companies oppose patent waivers, as do the UK and Switzerland.
Opponents say vaccine development is unpredictable and costly and that strong IP protection helped provide the incentive for the development of vaccines in record time and will do so again in work on tackling new variants or in a future pandemic.
Big pharmaceutical companies also say vaccine-making is difficult – highlighting the production problems AstraZeneca has faced — so suspending patents alone will not bring more shots.
Complex vaccines require deep cooperation between developers and manufacturers.
Any failure to make them properly could undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, they say.
Opponents also point to more than 260 partnership agreements already in place for production and distribution and comment that, under the existing TRIPS agreement, governments can allow producers to make a patented product without the consent of the patent owner.
Developing countries have “compulsory licences” which pushed down prices for HIV/AIDS medication from 2002 to 2007.
WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has suggested a “third way” as a compromise, laying out global action to increase vaccine access after a meeting with producers, governments and others.
She urged vaccine makers to increase technology transfer to bring in new manufacturing capacity and to be transparent on contracts and pricing.