United States to support removing patents on COVID-19 vaccines. What it means?

A patent means an exclusive intellectual property right granted by a sovereign authority to an inventor for a designated period.
Used vials of Pfizer-BioNTech's Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine
Used vials of Pfizer-BioNTech's Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccineAFP

In a sharp reversal from its earlier stance on vaccine patent waiver, the Biden administration on Wednesday said it would support loosening patent and intellectual property rights to help boost the global COVID-19 vaccine supply. The decision was taken after immense pressure from the international community and Democrats.

“The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. The administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative, said in a statement.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she added.

The decision comes after India and South Africa submitted a proposal in October last year at the World Trade Organisation‘s TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council to suspend vaccine patent for the duration of the pandemic and share the formula for jabs prepared by AstraZeneca and Pzifer.

The European Union on Thursday said that it is ready to discuss the proposal waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines. However, there is strong resistance from few wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies against any such move.

What are patent and Intellectual property rights?

A patent means an exclusive intellectual property right granted by a sovereign authority to an inventor for a designated period. Patents may be granted for inventions in any field of technology, from an everyday kitchen utensil to a nanotechnology chip. Medicines and other inventions are also covered by patents which provide legal protection against being copied.

Patent protection holds significance for the inventor as it makes sure that no one other than the patent holder can commercially be made, used, distributed, imported, or sold the productThe current pace of vaccination in the world will not help in eradicating the virus. The longer the virus stays in poor nations, the more chances it has to mutant into a deadly virus.

Why is there a proposal to waive patents on Coronavirus vaccines?

As a second wave of the pandemic has hit many countries, including India, many developing countries are lagging in vaccinating their people due to shortage. There have been calls from many quarters of the lifting of patent on life-saving drugs and equitable distribution of vaccine around the world.

The reason behind the proposal is to ramp up production and meet the high demand for vaccine in poor countries. There are several wealthy countries where vaccine orders ran into billions of doses and they have already administered vaccine doses to a considerable percentage of their population. Poor nations, on the other hand, are facing huge shortages of vaccine doses. Frontline health workers in some poorer countries have not even received a single vaccine shot.

According to New York Times vaccine tracker, 83 per cent of vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide have been in high-income countries, while 0.2 per cent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

The current pace of vaccination in the world will not help in eradicating the virus. The longer the virus stays in poor nations, the more chances it has to mutant into a deadly virus. Therefore, removing patents on vaccine manufacturing will allow developing countries a chance to produced vaccines locally in bulk by other manufacturers.

Who is backing vaccine patent waivers and who’s not?

Since the United States has changed its position on the vaccine patent waivers and is now supporting the move, several others countries including France, Australia and New Zealand have voiced their support.

France President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said that he welcomed the Biden administration’s support for patent waiving.“I am very much in favour of opening up intellectual property. We must obviously make this vaccine a global public good,” he said.

Australia and New Zealand also called the US proposal an important step in the fight against the global pandemic. Russia as well as Italy has also supported the idea of a waiver.

Meanwhile, the European Union, which is one of the world’s largest producers, exporters and consumers of vaccines, have also agreed to discuss the US proposal, but have remain non-committal. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to explore a waiver but has spoken in past about her opposition to lifting intellectual property rights.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen removes her mask on May 5, 2021.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen removes her mask on May 5, 2021.AFP

Germany has also rejected the US proposal to waive patent protection, saying that the main factors in vaccine production are capacity and quality standards, and not patents.

"The protection of the intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future," a spokeswoman for Angela Merkel's government said.

In addition to Germany, countries like Britain, Switzerland and Japan have also expressed reluctance to waive vaccine patents.

Many of the drug companies have criticised the move and said the waiver would undermine the incentives that led to the rapid development of the vaccines. Drugmakers have argued that the lifting of patents would hamper the control of safety and quality standards for vaccine manufacturing. Pharmaceutical companies also pointed out that the plan is ineffective and that too few countries have the capacity to make more vaccines, even if they knew the formulas.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said that a waiver would invite new manufacturers that lacked essential know-how and oversight, reported The Associated Press.

On Thusday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said that he was against a US-backed proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines. Speaking to AFP, he said patents are not the main roadblocks to more production.

"We should focus our efforts in what we can build right now, and that is enough capacity to produce billions of doses,” he said.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla talks during a press conference at the factory of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, in Puurs. (FIle Photo)
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla talks during a press conference at the factory of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, in Puurs. (FIle Photo)AFP

Now discussion on the waiver proposal will continue at WTO’s TRIPS Council which expected to hold a meeting again later this month and further discussions are likely over June 8 and 9.

All 164 members need to agree on every single aspect of the negotiated waivers and conditions attached, otherwise, the proposal may stall. It will be interesting to see whether the world could come to a compromise in the face of a devastating pandemic.

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