Updated: May 8, 2021 8:03:13 am
It has taken more than six months for the US and European Union to relax their stand on patents for anti-Covid vaccines. But all developed countries are still not on the same page on the issue. The EU — which is negotiating a deal with Pfizer to lock in 1.8 billion doses — has said that it is ready for a “pragmatic discussion” on the Biden administration’s plea for intellectual property rights flexibility on Covid vaccines. However, EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has expressed reservations about the US proposal and has found support from Germany, the bloc’s de facto leader. “The limiting factor in vaccine manufacturing is production capacity and high quality standards, not patents,” a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. The EU has been far more liberal in exporting vaccines compared to the US and UK, which cornered a large number of doses. But the tough stance of some of its members on IPR, while India and several other countries are confronted with vaccine shortages amidst a staggering rise in caseloads, runs counter to the bloc’s position during the early days of the crisis last year. Both von der Leyen and Merkel had endorsed the idea of “vaccine as a public good” then.
In October last year, India and South Africa suggested relaxing the TRIPS regime to enable Third World countries to scale up production of vaccines. The proposal received the support of at least 120 countries but was blocked by the US, UK and the EU which argued that the ban would stifle innovation — changes to international IPR rules require unanimous agreement. The US Trade Department’s statement, earlier this week, calling for “extraordinary measures to deal with extraordinary circumstances” is a belated but welcome attempt at course correction. “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,” it said.
Articles IX.3 and IX.4 of the WTO agreement mention “exceptional circumstances” when patents can be waived. The fact that such circumstances have not been delineated should not stand in the way of invoking these clauses when the world is confronted with its worst health crisis in a century. Relaxing IPR rules could allow companies in developing countries to manufacture vaccines without fear of lawsuits from firms that developed them. Of course, such measures will not ipso facto lead to an increase in production capacities. Concerns about counterfeit vaccines also deserve serious attention. However, given the warning of epidemiologists that mutants will continue to develop as long as the virus circulates in densely-populated countries — most of them in the developed world — the salience of allowing multiple players to start vaccine production under rigorous regulatory monitoring cannot be overstated. When the EU discusses the Biden proposal over the weekend, its members will surely keep the Covid adage, “no one is safe till everyone is safe,” in mind. That should nudge them to open more spaces for vaccine collaboration.
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