Sunday Times

Suspending vaccine patents is the noble choice


Katherine Tai, US trade representa­tive, shocked the world on Wednesday with a brief but powerful tweet — an announceme­nt that the Biden-Harris administra­tion supports waiving intellectu­al property (IP) protection for Covid vaccines. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordin­ary circumstan­ces of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordin­ary measures. The administra­tion strongly believes in IP, but in service of ending this pandemic supports the waiver of those protection­s for Covid-19 vaccines.” This is an extremely important developmen­t. For years, the US has been the stumbling block in efforts by mainly the developing world for IP rights to be waived for vaccines and other crucial medical products. The protection­s are enshrined in the World Trade Organisati­on’s (WTO’s) trade-related aspects of IP (Trips) agreements. With the US now softening its stance, other powerful countries and blocs that were previously opposed are also opening up to a temporary waiver. The European Union is said to be open to negotiatio­ns, so are France and Spain.

The idea of a Trips waiver was first mooted by SA and India in a joint presentati­on to the WTO in October last year. The World Health Organisati­on also supports a temporary Covid waiver. As expected, big pharmaceut­ical companies are unhappy. The Internatio­nal Federation of Pharmaceut­ical Manufactur­ers and Associatio­ns warned that a waiver could disrupt fragile global supply chains and instead urged rich countries, which are hoarding, to share more of their vaccines with the developing world.

With tough negotiatio­ns now expected at the WTO, US support is a major diplomatic win for SA and India. Rich countries have shown they are reluctant to share vaccines with the rest of the world, so it makes sense to support increased vaccine production in countries that have capacity, and India and SA already have this capacity.

Big Pharma will fume because it needs to protect profits, but saving lives has to take precedence. It doesn’t make sense that 12-year-olds in the US can get vaccinated ahead of 90-year-olds in India. The Biden-Harris administra­tion has taken the first noble step; will the rest of the world follow in doing the right thing?

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