Last Friday, the African Union marked a milestone as technology to make mRNA vaccines now prepares to roll-out from the world’s first mRNA hub to six countries on the continent. The World Health Organization-supported initiative, along with European partners, aims at getting Africa to produce vaccines for the latter, and more. 

The high-profile summit in Brussels to announce this was attended by Presidents from all countries receiving the technology–Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, the WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron.

But it comes against the backdrop of a call to waive Intellectual Property (IP) on Covid-19 tools, during the pandemic – a proposal mooted by India and South Africa. Quite naturally, the summit reflected the familiar tones that the IP waiver discussion has been witnessing over the last several months. The African leaders reiterated their call for a waiver and the European representatives maintained, IP was not a barrier, if technology transfer could be achieved through such initiatives. 

In fact, IP was centre-stage last week in another geography as well, with the deadline closing for submissions to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) office, ahead of its Special 301 report. The report is a scorecard of sorts, rating countries on their IP enforcement efforts. India, along with a clutch of other countries, is on its “priority watch list”.

The pandemic has put IP on a global stage and in full public view. But it’s unclear how it will all pan out for India, which until now has been a front-foot player on these issues. 

Having witnessed India’s participation in the international IP arena over the years, Dr Biswajit Dhar, professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, observes that matters have come a full circle on the call for an IP waiver.

“At the end of the day, ....we have no fall back position,” he says, indicating that India should have played a way more proactive role during the pandemic, in supplying vaccines and medicines. Public health experts agree, India should have resumed vaccine exports, for example, earlier than it did after the coronavirus-induced second wave.

US discussions

In its submission to USTR, the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (representing large domestic drugmakers) calls for taking India out of the Priority Watch List. “India is fully compliant with the multilateral TRIPS agreement and continues to take steps in accordance with international trends and progress,” it said.

But the PhRMA submission (representing multinational drugmakers) pointed out, India’s policy environment is unpredictable, with legal and regulatory systems posing “procedural and substantive barriers at every step of the patent process...”

Complementary role

Taking a birds-eye view of the different global IP developments, observers laud Africa’s efforts to establish vaccine production capacities, but wonder if India is at risk of losing some of its sheen as a reliable supplier to the world.

Leena Menghaney, Global IP advisor for MSF Access Campaign, observes that the India-South Africa proposal on the IP waiver was a gamechanger and did push big pharma to pursue partnership strategies.

India has the capacities for medicines, vaccines and diagnostic reagents, she points out. As a result, India can regain some of its lost ground (as reliable partner) by playing a complementary role to the African initiative, given its strengths in making APIs (Active pharmaceutical ingredients) or lipids (for mRNA vaccines) etc. 

On the USTR report, she adds, the US should have suspended the exercise, at least on pharmaceuticals, during the pandemic. 

Instead, the turf just got more combative. PhRMA says, its members inked about 300-odd partnerships on Covid-19 products. “Multilateral organizations that once served as custodians of the international rules based system increasingly are seeking to undermine and even eliminate intellectual property protections that drive and sustain biopharmaceutical innovation.... ,” they point out.

The coming months will see increased international activity on IP. And public health experts are calling for India’s voice (as a critical pharmaceutical producer) to be heard, a little louder.