World Health Organization chief welcomes US announcement that it will support waivers for coronavirus vaccines.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed a decision by the United States to back intellectual property waivers for coronavirus vaccines, calling it “a monumental moment” in the fight against the deadly virus.
WHO Executive Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday commended the Biden administration’s support for waiving intellectual property rights as an example of “leadership to address global health challenges”.
US President Joe Biden has faced increased pressure to back a World Trade Organization (WTO) proposal to waive the patents, a move that would allow more countries to manufacture much-needed COVID-19 jabs.
“Now let’s all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity & commitment of scientists who produced life-saving #COVID19 vaccines,” Tedros tweeted.
Biden, who has overseen a rapid distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the US, has faced growing calls to do more to support global vaccine equity and share the country’s vaccine supply with other hard-hit nations.
Dozens of countries, as well as human rights groups, former world leaders and public health experts, have ramped up their calls for the patent waiver in recent weeks amid a deadly COVID-19 surge in several countries.
Medecins sans Frontieres, one of the groups calling for the waiver, applauded what it said was a “bold” decision during a time of “unprecedented global need”, and said the waiver should be broadly applied.
“It is crucial that this waiver not just apply to preventative vaccines, but it should also cover other medical tools for COVID-19, including treatments for people who fall ill and diagnostics to help curb the spread, as originally proposed seven months ago,” Avril Benoit, executive director of MSF-USA said in a statement.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Washington would engage in negotiations with the WTO on the waivers.
“Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” Tai said in a statement.
Over the weekend, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain had said Tai would hold talks with the WTO “on how we can get this vaccine more widely distributed, more widely licensed, more widely shared”.
“It is something that President Biden had promised during his campaign,” Hanna said. “However, since he’s come to office, there has been a great deal of pressure as well on the other side, from many pharmaceutical companies, not to carry through this waiver.”
He added that the WTO, which operates on the basis of consensus, must now get together to negotiate a text that all the member countries would have to agree to.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of work … before this becomes a reality. But the Biden administration decision is something that gives this immense momentum,” Hanna said.
Global call for waivers
In October of last year, South Africa and India submitted a request to the WTO to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and other medical technologies needed to combat the coronavirus. More than 100 other countries have since supported that call.
“Given this present context of global emergency, it is important for WTO Members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products,” the October letter read.
The demand for waivers has grown in urgency as several countries, including India, are dealing with devastating COVID-19 surges that have brought their health systems to the brink of collapse.
In April, MSF called on wealthy nations “to stand on the right side of history and join hands with those in support” of the patent waiver.
After the US announcement, it said that countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver, including the United Kingdom, members of the European Union and Japan should also take action and “decide to put people’s health before pharmaceutical profits”.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), however, said waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines was “the wrong answer” to a complex problem and called for more technology transfer agreements, the Reuters news agency reported.
“Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption,” the IFPMA, which represents research-based pharmaceutical companies, said in a statement.
Others welcomed the Biden administration’s move, with British Labour Party MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy calling on the UK government “to get behind an IP waiver to speed up vaccine rollout in low-income countries and limit the chance of new variants emerging”.
South Africa and India submitted a request to the WTO to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and other medical technologies in October last year [File: Eric Gaillard/Reuters]
Julie Fischer, an associate research professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, says at the current rate of vaccine distribution, it is going to take most lower-income countries about two years to get most adults inoculated against COVID-19.
“The question is whether the waiving of these intellectual property rights would address this as quickly as everyone would like to see,” Fischer told Al Jazeera.
She explained that countries with the ability to manufacture the vaccines would also need manufacturing facilities, access to raw materials, and the expertise needed to manufacture doses safely in a short time.
“There is an opportunity to see what we could do to ramp up current vaccine manufacturing capability more effectively and to share doses more equitably from high-income countries to low-income countries, including through the COVAX facility,” Fischer added, referring to the WHO vaccine distribution programme