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IP Waiver: US expresses support but a long road is still ahead

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on May 06, 2021

The real deal will be when negotiations eventually begin to frame the context within which waivers are allowed

The public health universe has been abuzz ever since the US administration expressed its support to a waiver proposal on Covid-19 vaccines.

The proposal initially made by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) involved temporarily suspending intellectual property (IP) on Covid-19 linked medicines, diagnostics and vaccines, for the pandemic period. And it still requires support from all other WTO members.

‘Clarity’

The “real deal”, though, will be when negotiations eventually begin to frame the context within which waivers are allowed and outlining for how long it would be allowed, say IP experts. Clarity is also required on whether this support is only for vaccines or for other health technologies as well.

While Indian biotech companies could look to participate in making more vaccines for the world, the IP waiver proposal also puts a spotlight on indigenous vaccine Covaxin. A collaborative product between Bharat Biotech and the government’s Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the IP waiver opens the door for Covaxin technology to be shared with other producers in the country and overseas.

Nevertheless, the historic nature of the decision was palpable, as the wee hours of Thursday morning (in India) saw a flurry of messages being sent across geographies (Geneva and the US) to convey the Biden-administration’s support to the waiver, as conveyed by United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

‘Monumental moment’

“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” she said, explaining the waiver, even as the US administration strongly believed in IP protection. The US would actively participate in negotiations to make it happen, she added.

The World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19”. And humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontierès (MSF-Doctors without Borders) applauded the decision saying, “Doing so will increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools..”

Many low-income countries that MSF operates in, have only received 0.3 percent of the global Covid-19 vaccine supply, while the US has enough doses to protect its entire population and have half a billion surplus, MSF said. “Shortages of diagnostics, treatments, and other lifesaving medical tools continue to add pressure to countries such as India and Brazil where the surging of cases has pushed health systems to the brink of collapse,” it added.

Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA, pointed out, “While this decision means other manufacturers will have the information they need from pharmaceutical corporations—and the legal permission—to help scale up global supply and get more shots into the arms of people everywhere, this won’t happen immediately.”

Third World Network’s KM Gopakumar expects the US decision to have a “domino effect” on other countries that oppose the WTO waiver, including countries in the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan etc. “After that comes the negotiations which are critical,” he said, adding that India would have to show similar leadership on its home-grown vaccine Covaxin and share technology with countries that don’t have vaccines.

Tech, not easy to transfer

Meanwhile, representatives with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), and the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers’ Network (DCVMN) recently explained that IP was not the barrier to access. Technology-transfer involving biological products like vaccines was more complex than for a small molecule chemical drug, they said.

Vaccines required 100 to 200 components from different sources and it was critical to ensure that the company receiving this know-how had similar expertise and quality benchmarks. Also, shifting technology to a different set of equipment would require ensuring the sterile product behaved the same and had the same outcome, they pointed out.

The US statement of support is a key step, but its still a long road ahead before more vaccines are made available to more people.

Published on May 06, 2021

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