NEW DELHI: To say that it’s complicated would be an understatement. The jubilation that followed US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai’s statement that America would be backing intellectual property waivers for coronavirus vaccines, has quickly given way to the realisation that vaccinating everyone will be a long, drawn-out process with no guarantee of success.
Why is this so? First of all, the US isn’t the sole major player in the game. The other big player – the European Union – is expected to oppose intellectual property rights waiver and despite the promises by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that the bloc is willing to discuss any “proposals” that address that crisis in an “effective and pragmatic manner”, there’s no guarantee that Europe will follow suit.
If it does not that will be a big blow for world vaccination as one of the major world vaccines the Oxford-Astrazenca vaccine is developed jointly by the University of Oxford and Astrazenca – a British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company. If big pharma companies located in the UK and in Europe refuse to comply there will be little to go forward on.
The second big problem is that it’s not just complicated, it’s very complicated. The intellectual property waiver cannot be decided by the US alone, it will have to go the WTO where all 164 member countries will have to reach a decision. The most optimistic scenario here is that an agreement could take months to reach, perhaps even as late as June by which time many lives could already have been lost.
There are a host of other issues to consider. Will the vaccine waiver be time bound or unlimited as India and South Africa want? That’s just the tip of the iceberg, the other big issue there is not one waiver to consider. Vaccines are complex with the involvement of many ingredients, manufacturing technology etc. that ensures that are possibly hundreds of IPs attached making waivers a lengthy, complicated and costly experience. There also those like Bill Gates who believe that transfer of vaccine technology from richer to poorer countries isn’t feasible. Gates has been pillorised for his statements in the media, but there are others who share them, and big pharma is also worried about potential lawsuits should anything go wrong in another country.
Already, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), has stated in a lengthy statement in reaction to the US decision that waiving patents will not “provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis”, rather it will lead to “disruption.” IFPMA’s approval is particularly important as it represents research-based pharmaceutical companies, and its lack of co-operation suggests research could suffer.
The biggest issue however is lack of trust. Western pharma companies do not want to trade secrets with rivals as it eats into their bottom line. Pfizer is a prime example. The pharma giant reported on Tuesday that it earned $4.9 billion in the first three months of the year and it dramatically raised its profit forecast for all of 2021 thanks to strong demand for its COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer has according to reports doubled its sales projections from $15 billion to roughly $26 billion.
Profits aside, there is geo-politics to consider. Western nations are also nervous that trading vaccine secrets with “hostile nations”, namely Russia and China, could be used by them to browbeat poorer nations through the promise of cheaper vaccines. This is something to be avoided. Meanwhile, medical experts have argued that handing over trade secrets ensures that China may get access to knowhow to make drugs for other conditions such as cancer and heart problems.
There are big issues to be tackled and President Joe Biden’s nod is only the beginning. However, there is an understanding that something needs to be done quickly. In the past, lack of willingness by Western nations to share drugs with poorer nations led to millions of lives being lost – especially in Africa – to the HIV virus. Given that even the most optimistic estimate suggests that COVID-19 is likely to kill many more people than those suffering from HIV before it is brought under control, consensus and speedy action is the need of the hour.