Editorial

Fast forward

| Updated on May 17, 2021

India must take US’ patent waiver proposal forward and expedite the WTO process

The US surprised the world a few days ago by declaring its support for a waiver on patents for Covid vaccines. For a country which has always opposed relaxation of patents — and blacklisted countries like India under its ‘Special 301’ clause for its supposed patent flexibilities — this was no ordinary moment. Industry groups have argued that a waiver of patents will discourage innovation, a view that is generally speaking not without merit. However, in a global health emergency, IPRs, monopoly pricing and restricted supplies can block vaccine access to the developing world — and that is indeed happening. The richest countries have cornered about 80 per cent of vaccine supplies so far. For a virus that knows no borders, the US seems to have realised that vaccine shortages in large swathes of the world will prolong the pandemic, dragging everybody down with it. Meanwhile, the impact of Covid-19 vaccines — in many cases created by public-private partnerships — on curbing the spread of the pandemic is beyond dispute. The world’s population should be vaccinated as quickly as possible — which cannot happen without lower prices and technology transfer. The poorer countries have been paying the same or higher prices for vaccines than their richer counterparts.

While India is developing its own vaccines — four of which are in the pipeline apart from Covaxin — it needs to supplement its output with international vaccines to ensure that a population of over 900 million which is above 18 years of age gets about 1.8 billion doses at the earliest (180 million have already been covered once over). So pricing and technology transfer matters, at a time when the current output of about 100 million doses a month needs to be doubled for the target group to be vaccinated in about nine months. Anticipating a global crisis, India and South Africa had in October 2020 placed a TRIPS waiver proposal before the WTO. However, it was then opposed by the Trump administration, besides EU, Switzerland, UK and Japan. The open-ended proposal argues that “The waiver should continue until widespread vaccination is in place globally...we propose an initial duration of [x] years from the date of the adoption of the waiver.”

While, the US statement comes as the first step forward since then, a consensus looks elusive. The WTO Director-General recently said that she would work towards an agreement by the next Ministerial in December — but by then many more lives will be lost. India must seek an early solution; rich countries are likely to have covered most of their population by July or so, releasing capacities and surplus stocks. India can regain its pharma pre-eminence by producing inexpensively for itself and the world. It must secure a patent waiver of at least a year for a meaningful impact. The pandemic may not fade away in a hurry. Investments will have to keep pace with possible mutations to avert further catastrophes.

Published on May 17, 2021

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