In what can help India get over the devastating second wave of Covid-19 and provide a cushion for subsequent spread, the Joe Biden administration had decided to support a proposal moved by it and South Africa to temporarily waive some Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
What is the ‘extraordinary’ decision taken by the US government?
The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend some of the world economic body’s intellectual property protections, which could allow drugmakers across the globe access to the closely guarded trade secrets of how the viable vaccines have been made.
Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, announced the administration’s position as the pandemic continues to spiral in India and South America.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.”
Was the Biden administration under pressure?
A group of 175 eminent personalities mostly comprising Nobel laureates and former world leaders wrote to US president Joe Biden, seeking “urgent action” to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines. The letter campaign has come just days after India and South Africa reiterated a similar appeal to the WTO. The proposal, first tabled in October 2020, has found the backing of over a 100 nations.
How will the lifting of patents help?
Currently, eight vaccines are being used overall. No country is using all of them but the richer nations have access to three or four, having placed advance orders. The vaccine makers are also typically based in these countries, and have patents that prevent others from manufacturing them.
Patents restrict access to products and also prevent other scientists from improving on patented inventions, thus discouraging innovation and widespread adoption.
The monopoly granted to Big Pharma has enabled them to resist any kind of international attempt to share scientific data and technology, making it impossible for other manufacturers across the world to enter into production.
This likely explains why currently only 43 per cent of global production capacity is being utilised.
How is the decision going to help India?
Dr KV VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, has warned that a third wave of the pandemic is inevitable. Therefore, banking on large production of vaccines is the only way out.
If patents are ultimately waived, it will help increase the scale and speed of vaccine rollout besides making the vaccines more affordable for everyone.