After a lot of pressure from vaccine rights advocates and Democratic party lawmakers. US President Joe Biden on Wednesday finally announced the backing of India & South Africa’s COVID-19 Vaccine patent waiver. The news came from the administration of the US President which implied a temporary waive off of IP protections (intellectual property protections) for COVID-19 vaccines.
Since the production of vaccines in USA, representatives from countries like India and South Africa were at WTO (World Trade Organization’s) seeking a waive off of IP protections. But US never agreed to such plans. US President Joe Biden has been under scrutiny by his opposition Republican party and vaccine advocates for sitting on a lot of vaccines and not sharing IP to other countries.
Back in October 2020, India and South Africa moved to the World Trade Organization and proposed a plan in which both countries saw a temporary waive off. But US along with European Union, UK and Japan opposed the waiver.
On May 5, The US Trade representative Katherine Tai announced
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. 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 announcement is a right step in the direction as it will help several vaccine makers from developing countries make their own vaccines and help the world in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. The next step in the long process would be further meetings at the WTO where if an agreement can be met through negotiations, private vaccine makers across India can have their own vaccines.
What is the need to waive off the patents on COVID-19 vaccine?
To understand the need for a waive off we need to understand the current scenario. Currently only handful of companies that have their own patents of COVID-19 vaccine are eligible to manufacture those vaccines.
The waive off of the patents would mean that vaccine recopies would be open source and any manufacture with the technical expertise and ingredients will be able to manufacture such vaccines. This will also lead to relatively cheaper vaccines as the demand and supply ratio would be not as skewed.
A simple way to look at this is taking a look at hypothetical scenario
If a country X would have the patent to produce vaccine to curb viral infections, only the handful manufacturers in the country that hold the patent for such vaccine would be able to produce it. Other countries where people are falling sick would be forced to import vaccines at a higher rate which will lead to not enough people getting protection from that particular infection.
Who is standing against the waive off of patents and why?
Vaccine makers from several countries such as US, UK, EU and Japan have opposed to waive off the patents. These countries are already sitting on a huge stock pile of COVID-19 vaccines they have produced and have been vaccinating the population quickly due to no vaccine shortage.
The argument from the vaccine makers is that if the patents are waived off, it would lead to more and more countries producing low-quality vaccines. The vaccine makers say that it’s the tightly sealed IP protection that helps maintain the vaccine quality. Moreover, they also argue that if patents are not protected, vaccine development for future pandemics would suffer, given the amount of resources that are put into research and development.
Recently, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America wrote a letter to President Biden saying, “Eliminating those protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants, create confusion that could potentially undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, and create a barrier to information sharing. Most importantly, eliminating protections would not speed up production.”
What will be the implications of the waive off be for India?
Although the statement from Biden administration puts the world one closer to eradicating the pandemic in a coordinated way, it still doesn’t mean that the patents will be open sourced right away.
As mentioned earlier, further meetings will be held at the World Trade Organization where members would negotiate and come to a consensus. In an optimistic scenario of the patents being completely waived, vaccine production would see a significant increase.
India, which has been exporting a lot of doses to foreign countries can have multiple vaccine makers making the COVID-19 vaccine. This would bring the price of the vaccines down, and would help the states with much larger number of vaccines.