Finding the Political Will in a Pandemic

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
Credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 5, 2021, the United States Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai  stated that the United States supports a temporary waiver on the intellectual property rights of the Covid-19 vaccines in order to bring an end to the pandemic. Ambassador Tai further said that the US will be actively participating in the text-based negotiations that are to follow with the WTO.

This statement comes in the background of countries like India and South Africa working for a waiver on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) at the WTO since October last year.

Although the support of the United States comes as a welcome step in making Covid-19 vaccines available all over the world, the road ahead isn’t as smooth as it may seem.

TRIPS in a Covid infested world

Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is a WTO agreement which is currently the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property. It plays a key role in facilitating trade and resolving disputes related to intellectual property issues.

TRIPS effectively restricts other manufacturers from producing a patented product without prior permission. In the context of the Covid-19 vaccines, TRIPS prevents small manufacturers from producing these vaccines in different countries without taking permission from the Pharmaceutical Corporations who have patented the formula for the vaccines.

The Developing countries like India and South Africa have expressed concerns about the inaccessibility that the application of TRIPS presents in this case, stating that the intellectual property rights such as patents, copyrights and protection of undisclosed information can serve as a big hurdle in ensuring a timely access to affordable medicines and vaccines to the Third World and if waived, could help boost the production of vaccines in these countries and ultimately contribute towards the containment of the raging cases of Covid-19.

The argument against the waiver of TRIPS put forward by the developed countries, like Japan, nations of the EU, Canada, etc., is that the waiver would lead to a rather draconian state of affairs where the pharmaceutical companies, stripped of their intellectual property rights on vaccines, may feel wronged. The developed countries are seeking to protect the interests of the pharmaceutical companies who have claimed that they are capable enough to meet the global need for vaccines.

The European Union Commission has reportedly stated that rather than chasing a waiver, countries should look towards pressuring the industry for application of innovative means, protected by IP rights. For the EU Commission, collaborative efforts with the industry is the way forward.

In a statement put out last year, Thomas Cueni, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, stated that the waiver on the intellectual property rights of the Covid-19 vaccines will be “counterproductive” claiming that the partnership programs for scaling up production levels to meet the demand of vaccines all over the world have already been put in place. Cueni further added that a waiver will not lead to faster research or widespread access but will rather undermine confidence in what has already been proven as a well functioning IP system.

Issues Ahead

Although waiver of the IP rights with respect to Covid vaccines will be a big step, it would hardly mean widespread production of the vaccines. Like the EU had stated earlier, the proposed waiver is not to be mistaken for a magical solution. Once the waiver is implemented, the developing countries need to ensure the availability of the necessary means required for the production of these vaccines. Waiving of IP protection does not impose a legal requirement on the pharmaceutical companies to transfer the technological know-how to small scale manufacturers stationed in developing countries. While individual countries may impose legal frameworks by which the transfer of required technology is necessary, until and unless there is a political will for it, the chances of it happening are very low.

The world is moving into a very important phase in its fight against Covid-19, where the scientists fear that prolonging this fight will lead to emergence of new coronavirus variants which might render the present vaccines ineffective. The world cannot afford waiting for negotiations that stretch for weeks and months in a fight against a virus that is multiplying rapidly and killing thousands every day. High income countries that continue to shield pharmaceutical giants need to understand that in the case of Covid-19, traces of the virus anywhere pose a threat to all. The coming days will test the willingness of the global community which would ascertain whether the phrase “we are in this together” holds any meaning at all.

Gagan Hitkari is a postgraduate student of Conflict Analysis and Peace Building at Jamia Millia Islamia University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.