Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

What patent waiver in the COVID fight mean for global health equity

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : TRIPS

Mains level : Paper 2- Implications of patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccine

The article highlights the implications of patent waiver for Covid-19 for global health equity.

Where the opposition to waiver proposal came from

  • Recently, the US agreed to support the India-South Africa proposal, seeking a waiver of patent protection for technologies needed to combat and contain COVID-19.
  • Response to the proposal was divided during earlier debates at the WTO.
  • While many low and middle income countries supported it, resistance came from the U.S., the United Kingdom, the European Union, Switzerland, Australia and Japan.
  • Since the WTO operates on consensus rather than by voting, the proposal did not advance despite drawing support of over 60 countries.
  • Predictably, the pharmaceutical industry fiercely opposed it and vigorously lobbied many governments.
  • Right-wing political groups in the high income countries sided with the industry.

Issues with the reasons given for opposition to the waiver proposal

1) Quality and safety of vaccine production in low and middle-income countries

  • It was argued that the capacity for producing vaccines of assured quality and safety was limited to some laboratories.
  • So, it is argued that it would be hazardous to permit manufacturers in low and middle-income countries.
  • However, pharmaceutical manufacturers have no reservations about contracting industries in those countries to manufacture their patent-protected vaccines for the global market.

2) Licenced manufacturing

  • The counter to patent waiver is an offer to license manufacturers in developing countries while retaining patent rights.
  • This restricts the opportunity for production to a chosen few.
  • The terms of those agreements are opaque and offer no assurance of equity in access to the products at affordable prices, either to the country of manufacture or to other developing countries.

3) Supplying vaccines through COVAX facility

  • It was also stated that developing countries could be supplied vaccines through the COVAX facility, set up by several international agencies and donors.
  • While well-intended, it has fallen far short of promised delivery.
  • Some U.S. states have received more vaccines than entire Africa has from COVAX.

4) No availability of extra capacity for vaccine production

  • Critics of a patent waiver say there is no evidence that extra capacity exists for producing vaccines outside of firms undertaking them now.
  • Even before the change in the U.S.’s position, manufacturers from many countries expressed their readiness and avidly sought opportunities to produce the approved vaccines.
  • They included industries in Canada and South Korea, suggesting that capable manufacturers in high income countries too are ready to avail of patent waivers but are not being allowed to enter a restricted circle.
  • The World Health Organization’s mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub has already drawn interest from over 50 firms.
  • Instead of arguing that capacity is limited, high-income countries and other donors should be supporting the growth of more capacity to meet the current and likely future pandemic.
  • They should learn from the manner in which India built up capacity and gained a reputation as a respected global pharmacy by moving from product patenting to process patenting between 1970 and 2005.

5) Time required to utilise patented technology is long

  • Patent waivers are also dismissed as useless on the grounds that the time taken for their utilisation by new firms will be too long to help combat the present pandemic.
  • But many countries have low vaccination rates and variants are gleefully emerging from unprotected populations.
  • This makes it difficult to put the end date for the pandemic to end

6) China factor

  • An argument put forth by multinational pharmaceutical firms is that a breach in the patent barricade will allow China to steal their technologies, now and in the future.
  • The original genomic sequence was openly shared by China, which gave these firms a head start in developing vaccines.

Issue of rewarding innovation financially

  • Much of the foundational science that built the path for vaccine production came from public-funded universities and research institutes.
  • Further, what use is it to hold on to patents when global health and the global economy are devastated?
  • It is often argued that for defending patent protection, is that innovation and investment by industry need to be financially rewarded to incentivise them to develop new products.
  • Even if compulsory licences are issued bypassing patent restrictions, royalties are paid to the original innovators and patent holders.

Way forward

  • Developing countries must take heart from his gesture and start issuing compulsory licences.
  • The Doha declaration on TRIPS flexibilities permits their use in a public health emergency.
  • High-income countries and multilateral agencies should provide financial and technical support to enable expansion of global production capacity.

Consider the question “Why are the implications of patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccine for the global health equity? What were the reasons for opposition to waiver proposal?” 

Conclusion

The U.S.-supported patent waiver in the COVID fight has the potential to bring in much-needed global health equity.

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