Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Animation credits: Catoneil
Patents, by their very nature, are highly contested. And when it comes to patents of the vaccines in charge of ending the current global pandemic, demands for their waiver are bound to arise sooner or later. Such demands are increasingly being brought up by nations and leaders alike for one short reason, scarcity and inequitable distribution. For instance, India and South Africa were some of the first countries to demand the cause in WTO. The movement is much more popular now. In today's piece, we aim to look for nuances hidden below the front-page headlines.
INEQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION-BUT WHY?
Vaccines are being manufactured at the maximum capacity the global supply chains can sustain. Still, the vast inequitable distribution is a reality. This has to do with the nature of the coronavirus, which is extremely transmissible. As the virus spread like wildfire and with no signs of vaccines or other medicines at hand, governments around the world resorted to the temporary solution of lockdowns, which came with additional costs. With people locked inside their houses, economies observed contraction and even negative growth in certain cases. This further put pressure on the already overburdened health infrastructure.
Therefore, the nature of coronavirus combined with the additional brunts brought about by lockdowns as a policy created a massive demand for the vaccines with time being a vector. Developed countries piled billions of dollars into pharmaceutical titans like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna for R&D in finding possible vaccines in return for securing millions of shots for their citizens, if successful. As a result, almost all of the initial stockpile was already booked, to even an extent where every Canadian citizen has around 8 shots reserved on average.
Common sense tells us, tackling the covid pandemic requires vaccinating all the people across the borders- and 2 shots per person for the total world population of 7.9 billion people is a daunting task even for the global supply chains at their zenith. As a result, most of the countries were stacked up at the end of the line for vaccines, nothing illegal in that, just economics at work.
Populated countries like India and Brazil, facing a huge rise in infections even after a year of the pandemic and vaccines insight, several demands have been made to waiver the patents of the vaccines in order to scale up the production as per needs. Intellectual property (like patents, trademarks, industrial designs, copyrights, etc.). are protected by the TRIPS Agreement applicable to all WTO members. However, a clause in the agreement states that patents do not run against the interests of public health and access in times of a pandemic. Still, the proposition of waiver is being met by strong opposition. Let us find out why?
PATENT STAKEHOLDERS- FORCES OPPOSING THE WAIVER AND REASONS
After US President-elect Joe Biden has declared his administration’s intent of temporarily waiving vaccine patents, big pharma lobbyists have been trying to discourage these measures. An unreleased letter by the collective lobby of Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, being circulated among the US lawmakers, states the waiver as a threat to National Security. It states how waivers will empower Russia and allow China to gobble up vaccine supplies and technologies.
A glance at the situation is bound to raise suspicions for and allegations against profits maximisation on the part of vaccine makers. To an extent, rightly so, because of course, profits are involved in the equation, and quite significantly in fact. But profits cannot be the sole reason, the ones opposing the waiver list several reasons, the immense complexity of the vaccine manufacturing process-the safety concerns tied up to it and the concerted transfer of technological know-how being the major pebbles.
In an interview with BBC, Thomas Cueni- the president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Association, highlighted some of the significant points regarding why a waiver of patents isn't a simple solution to our complex problems. At first, the sheer complexity of the manufacturing processes. For instance, the Pfizer-Biotech vaccine requires 280 ingredients from 86 different suppliers from 19 different countries.
We are considering this with the fact that transferring these already limited supplies and the technological know-how and expertise to companies with little or no experience might delay the quantity of doses needed in time. As a matter of fact, the supplies need to be in the hands of entities already vested with the required expertise. One popular argument goes as, the waiver in relation to antiviral HIV Drugs proved quite effective, and rightly so. However, what we must not ignore is that it took almost a decade to do so.
In Addition to this, the companies holding patents have formed partnerships with around 250 other companies to produce vaccines, Serum Institute of India, Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products being some of the major ones. Hence, in conclusion, the forces opposing vaccine waivers suggest, tackling vaccine shortage requires strengthening the global supply chains in the hands of those already in charge.
Billionaire Philanthropist Bill Gates has aired similar concerns. What is the solution, then? Countries with a surplus supply of vaccine doses are being urged to share more and more with those in need. COVAX (COVID-19 VACCINES GLOBAL ACCESS) - the initiative collectively undertaken by WHO, CEPI and GAVI is part of the solution. Recently, the US pledged to contribute 80 million doses to the initiative, and Johnson & Johnson signed a deal for 200 million doses.
Despite all these reasons, as long as nations are going to face fatalities related to covid, demands of waiving up the vaccine patents will be brought up time and again in anticipation of forming more equitable access to vaccines.
BY PRATYAKSH KUMAR
CO-FOUNDER THE GEOSTRATA