US officials and drug makers have faced urgent calls for months to end a blockade on Covid-19 vaccine patent rules that have handed pharmaceutical companies monopoly control over their production.
Despite early warnings and pleas from humanitarian aid groups and poor countries to waive intellectual property rights to allow them to develop their own vaccines in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, fewer than 1 per cent of existing doses were administered in low-income countries by the end of March. More than 86 per cent of vaccine shots around the world have gone into the arms of people in wealthier countries, according to UNICEF data analysed by The New York Times.
In early March, World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked: “If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?”
“Solidarity is the way out,” he said. WHO’s General Council will discuss a waiver at its meeting on 5 May.
Meanwhile, the White House is mulling its options to expand global vaccine production, but officials have pointed to other efforts to scale-up distribution and help produce vaccines in other countries. That includes a pledge to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and shipping out materials to help India boost production of its own Covishield vaccine.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told CBS on Sunday that waiving intellectual property rights rules “is part of the problem, but manufacturing is the biggest problem.”
Moderna – one of three drug makers with available vaccines in the US, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – has also pledged up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to Covax, the United Nations effort to boost global vaccine supply. Through the agreement, the company will provide its first 34 million doses by the end of the year with the rest through 2022.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC on Sunday that trade representative Katherine Tai is in the middle of “intensive consultations” with the WHO about a temporary waiver and will have a “way forward in the coming days.”
A growing number of US officials have also pressed the government and drug makers to act.
“What we’ve got to say right now to the drug companies, when millions of lives are at stake around the world, yes, allow other countries to have these intellectual property rights so they can produce the vaccines that are desperately needed in poor countries,” US Senator Bernie Sanders told NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 May.
“There is something morally objectionable about rich countries being able to get that vaccine, and yet millions and billions of people in poor countries are unable to afford it,” he said.
The senator added that the US has a “moral responsibility” to help the rest of the world combat the pandemic, which is also “in our self-interest, because if this pandemic continues to spread in other countries, it is going to come back and bite us at one point or another.”
The World Trade Organization and its 164 member nations have in place a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement to protect patent holders, including those manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines.
More than 100 developing countries have urged WHO to waive those restrictions following a proposal – filed jointly by India and South Africa – in October 2020.
That proposal was blocked by Donald Trump’s administration, as well the UK, European Union, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.
“In this Covid-19 pandemic, we are once again faced with issues of scarcity, which can be addressed through diversification of manufacturing and supply capacity and ensuring the temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property,” Dr Maria Guevara, international medical secretary at Medecins Sans Frontieres, said in a statement last month.
“We urge all countries in opposition to this, including the US and the EU, to stand on the right side of history and join hands with those in support,” she said. “It is about saving lives at the end, not protecting systems.”
Support for waiving the TRIP agreement is central to the People’s Vaccine campaign movement, with widespread support from humanitarian aid groups and more than 400 government officials across the EU.
Among the campaign’s opponents is Bill Gates, a staunch defender of intellectual property provisions and whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sponsored Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health initiative that is the driving force behind Covax.
In a statement, the Gates Foundation said that the organisation is “focused on the policy and process barriers that stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines”, leaving the waiver decision up to WHO.