NEWS The U.S.-supported patent waiver in the COVID fight has the potential to bring in much-needed global health equity.
- India-South Africa had placed the proposal before the World Trade Organisation (WTO), seeking a waiver of patent protection for technologies needed to combat and contain COVID-19.
- Following which the proposal had been facing resistance from several high income countries including the U.S. administration.
- But, the United States has now backed the initiative. This decision of the U.S. comes as a shot in the arm for global health.
IMPLICATION OF U.S. BACKING
- The backing of the proposal could act as a catalyst for building consensus in favour of that proposal when it comes up for fresh consideration at the WTO in June.
- However, the path ahead is yet not clear. While France and Russia have declared support, Germany has voiced its opposition.
- 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.
- A strange addition to this group was Norway, which usually supports initiatives that promote global health equity.
- Since the WTO operates on consensus rather than by voting, the proposal did not advance despite drawing support of over 60 countries.
- Also, the pharmaceutical industry fiercely opposed it and vigorously lobbied many governments.
- Even, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates was strident in his opposition to patent waivers for vaccines.
REASONS OFFERED FOR SUCH OPPOSITION
- It was argued that the capacity for producing vaccines of assured quality and safety was limited to some laboratories and that it would be hazardous to permit manufacturers in low and middle income countries to play with technologies they cannot handle.
- On the contrary to this defence, these pharmaceutical manufacturers have no reservations about contracting industries in those countries to manufacture their patent-protected vaccines for the global market. This shows they don’t mind as long as their patents and profits are protected.
- 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.
- Also 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. Instead the original genomic sequence was openly shared by China, which gave these firms a head start in developing vaccines.
- Another argument, offered for defending patent protection, is that innovation and investment by industry need to be financially rewarded to incentivise them to develop new products. But even if compulsory licences are issued bypassing patent restrictions, royalties are paid to the original innovators and patent holders. They will continue to gain revenue, though not super profits.
- 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.
- 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 the entire Africa has from COVAX. The trickle down theory does not work well in the global vaccine supply.
- Manufacturers from many countries like Canada and South Korea, expressed their readiness to produce the approved vaccines, are not being allowed to enter a restricted circle.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
- The World Trade Organization resolves debates by consensus and not by voting. The process may drag on, despite U.S. intervention.Therefore, developing countries must start issuing compulsory licences.
- Also, the Doha declaration on TRIPS flexibilities permits their use in a public health emergency.
- National governments must be trusted to promote credible companies and not permit fly-by-night operators.
- Efficacy and safety of the products can be assessed by credible regulatory agencies and the World Health Organization.
- High-income countries and multilateral agencies should provide financial and technical support to enable expansion of global production capacity. That will reflect both ennobling altruism and enlightened self-interest.