As COVID-19 continues to dominate our lives, the news focus this week has been on vaccines and the disputes raging between the UK, the EU and throughout the rest of the world over vaccine safety and access. Whilst not headline news, there have also been recent disagreements about how to manage the intellectual property associated with COVID technologies and how to ensure this does not interfere with or inhibit vaccine production and access.
Earlier this month, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) debated a proposal, led by India and South Africa, to waive intellectual property rights on Covid technologies to allow low and middle income countries better access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and equipment such as PPE and ventilators. Supporters and opponents are lined up as expected with lower income countries in favour and higher income countries like the UK, the US and the EU against. However, the proposal does have many supporters within the UK and the Prime Minster has been asked, by letter, to lend his support to it by a coalition of business people, economists, academics and trade unionists.
The letter, organised by Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign, addresses vaccine inequality stating that over 75% of the global vaccinations that have been administered have taken place in just 10 countries whilst there are over 100 countries, with a population of 2.5 billion people, that have not yet administered a single dose. According to the WTO, as of 18 February 2021, at least seven different vaccines across three platforms have been rolled out in countries where vulnerable populations in all countries should be given the highest priority for vaccination. At the same time, more than 200 additional vaccine candidates are in development, of which more than 60 are in clinical development.
As global demand for vaccines soar, manufacturing capacity is, unsurprisingly, the rate determining factor. Many believe that a blanket waiver on IP rights would allow countries to invest and develop their manufacturing capability for future production but this is countered by arguments that it would not provide an immediate solution as an IP waiver is not going to produce the billions of vaccine doses that are needed now and could actually damage vaccine effectiveness if manufacturers who lack the necessary know-how to ensure quality control are allowed to pile in. There are also concerns from those that use the IP system that blanket waivers will undermine the whole IP system. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) says waiving IP would undermine confidence in “what has proven to be a well-functioning IP system allowing industry to partner with confidence” with academia and research institutes.
IFMA, which represents research-based pharmaceutical companies and associations around the world including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, GSK, Gilead Science and Johnson and Johnson, has further stated that IP is not an issue when it comes to vaccine supply. The bottlenecks arise from shortages in capacity, raw material, ingredients and know-how. To put this in context, 10 billion COVID vaccine doses are expected to be produced this year - double the manufacturing capacity for all vaccines combined in 2019. Manufacturers, suppliers and governments (including those contemplating export bans) must work together to avoid exacerbating issues around vaccine shortages.
Meanwhile, the UK government has responded with a government spokesperson saying the UK was one of the biggest donors to the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme and has provided £548 million to help supply at least 1.3 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for up to 92 developing countries this year.
“Whilst we are committed to exploring ways in which we can improve equitable access further, we believe that the answer lies within the existing Intellectual Property framework, and continue to engage constructively in discussions at the WTO.”
COVAX is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which WHO launched with partners in 2020. COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the ACT Accelerator, convened by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi and WHO, aims to end the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic by:
· speeding up thedevelopment of safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19;
· supporting the building of manufacturing capabilities; and
· working with governments and manufacturers to ensure fair and equitable allocation of the vaccines for all countries.
In conclusion, it is important to consider IP and to ensure it is not used to impede progress in the fight against COVID-19 but it is only a small part of the bigger picture. Equitable vaccine access is essential for all our lives to return to normal but this can only be achieved if politics is set aside and pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, suppliers, national governments and supranational governments, like the EU, work together to achieve this.
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