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The UK government is in talks about a plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents to boost the production of shots in low and middle-income countries, the Guardian can reveal.
The discussions come amid growing calls for Britain and other European countries to follow the US in supporting the proposal put before the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Michael Weinstein, founder of the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), warned that a failure to act swiftly could allow Covid-19 to rip through the world’s poorest countries resulting in a “moral and public health failure” akin to the initial woefully inadequate global response to the Aids pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We waited from 1996 until 2003 to start deploying HIV drugs in the developing world, specifically in Africa,” Weinstein said, referring to how pharmaceutical companies in the US, backed by political allies in the Clinton administration, sued “South Africa to prevent them from having generics, which was scandalous”.
The foundation launched the Vaccinate Our World campaign in the UK this week to urge Britain and the EU to improve vaccine parity across the globe.
India and South Africa have been pushing for the WTO to waive a longstanding agreement designed to protect intellectual property, known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights(Trips), to improve access to the vaccines.
Earlier this month, 140 MEPs issued a letter to the European Commission urging it to adopt the proposal for a temporary waiver to address vaccine inequality. Meanwhile, 400 academics, politicians and charities wrote to Boris Johnson urging the prime minister to follow the example of the US.
Weinstein said: “The illusion we can protect ourselves by building walls around rich countries and vaccinate only our own populations – and not other countries currently incubating variants that will attack and break through at some point – does not make sense.”
According to data on vaccine procurement from Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Centre, the UK is the second-largest Covid-19 vaccine hoarder in the world after Canada, having bought enough for four times its own population.
But, said Weinstein: “The real issue is production and the patents, and the lack of coordination between governments.”
However, Sir Robin Jacob, chair of intellectual property law at University College London, said there was “no evidence” that suspending vaccine patents would lead to more jabs.
“Vaccines are not the same as medicines, especially conventional medicines which you can make in a relatively small factory in vast amounts,” he said. “They are much more complicated. It’s a bit like gardening – you need skills and scientific knowledge, and even then it can go wrong. We have seen production problems from people who know how to make it.”
He added: “There is not the slightest evidence patents are in any way holding up production of the vaccines. There are other problems – the supply chain is complicated … the US has an export ban I gather – but it’s not patents that are in the way.”
Lady Sheehan, who sits on the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, welcomed the fact that Britain was in talks, but stressed: “Time is of the essence. Given what we are seeing in India and the risk to the UK and other countries, with potentially dangerous variants emerging, the government has a moral duty to act to create conditions to ramp up global supply – but also enlightened self-interest should dictate it too.”
The UK government said it provided funding for the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced at cost to low and middle-income countries, at scale and through manufacturing partnerships across the world.
A spokesperson said: “We are engaging with the US and other WTO members constructively on the Trips waiver issue, but we need to act now to expand production and distribution worldwide.”
They said any negotiations in the WTO on a waiver would require unanimous support and could take time, adding: “So while we will constructively engage in the IP [intellectual property] discussions, we must continue to push ahead with action now including voluntary licensing agreements for vaccines and support for Covax [global vaccine-sharing programme].”
An AstraZeneca spokesperson said: “We agree the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. AstraZeneca has risen to the challenge of creating a not-for-profit vaccine that is widely available around the world, and we are proud that our vaccine accounts for 98% of all supplies to Covax.
“We have established 20 supply lines spread across the globe and have shared the IP and knowhow with dozens of partners in order to make this a reality. In fact, our model is similar to what an open IP model could look like.”
A partnership between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has been hailed as an example of how technology transfer and voluntary licensing can make an impact on access to vaccines in low and middle-income countries.
However, SII’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, announced on Tuesday that the SII would not be exporting more vaccine doses this year, in a blow to inoculation programmes across Africa and the developing world. Instead, it will prioritise India, which is in the throes of a devastating second wave.
Meanwhile, Covax, the international scheme to ensure equal access to Covid-19 vaccines, is short of 140m doses, largely owing to India’s continued crisis.
“While Covax was established to help lower-income nations the quantities of vaccines have been inadequate and have forced developing countries in Africa and other parts of the world to fend for themselves,” said Dr Penninah Lutung, Africa bureau chief for AHF.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Britain in talks to waive Covid vaccine patents to improve global access to jabs | Global development