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?