Pulse

Amid the sparring over patents, have we missed the bus in formulating a public health solution for all times

There is no global consensus yet on ways to make Covid-19 vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and other healthcare tools accessible to more people around the world.

More than two years into the pandemic, battle lines continue to be firmly drawn over a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) on Covid-19 tools — mooted by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization in October 2020. The latest avatar of the proposal, though, does not find favour with many countries, which find it watered down, cumbersome on developing countries, and limited to vaccines. In fact, several global voices have urged country heads to reject the latest version, reasoning that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

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Big Pharma, though, thinks otherwise, and has dug in its heels, labelling the IP-waiver exercise as “political posturing”.

Away from this discussion, the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) came out with its Special 301 report that scores countries on IP enforcement and practices. And it, too, reflected the WTO discussion and the US’ softened stance on waiving IP for Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic. However, India (a key global supplier of vaccines and medicines) continues to be on the report’s “priority watch list” for IP concerns in the pharmaceutical sector, among others.

Missed opportunity

With multiple signals on IP emerging from different international discussions, there is concern over whether the global community has missed the bus in formulating a workable public health solution for this pandemic, and a precedent for future health emergencies.

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“Sadly, the world has not learnt anything from the pandemic… it is a huge missed opportunity,” says Dr Biswajit Dhar, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, adding that this is not the last pandemic that will confront the world.

“Multilateral organisations were set up, so their processes would take precedence over domestic systems. But, at the end of the day, the world has taken several steps back,” he says, of countries looking inwards, and drug and vaccine makers supplying regions that were into third and fourth rounds of vaccination even as other parts of the world waited for their primary doses.

Having followed discussions on technology transfers for four decades, Dhar says voluntary licences and collaborations between companies become restrictive in their scope and pricing. He called for cooperative solutions between member countries of multilateral organisations, with greater political will to come up with solutions to the pandemic.

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Third World Network’s IP expert KM Gopakumar points to the lack of trust signalled by the impasse at the WTO, with countries not showing solidarity despite the pandemic. “The discussions don’t seem to empower countries (to produce their own medicines and vaccines) and, instead, it is creating a permanent dependency,” he points out.

Developing countries need to become self-sufficient, he says, pointing to the significant role India’s drugmakers played in helping treat HIV/AIDS. But that role is not visible during this pandemic, he said. The Indian government should have an overview on private sector strengths and weakness in terms of vaccine production, for instance, not just in the interest of India’s health and bio-security, but also to have strategic alliances with countries that need them, he said.

Wrong solution?

Responding to the latest IP-waiver discussion emerging from the WTO earlier this month, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) said, “The IP TRIPS Waiver is not only the wrong solution, but it is also an outdated proposal that has been overtaken by events, since vaccine supplies are vastly outstripping demand. The current proposals should be shelved and the focus should be directed to getting vaccines into arms for those who need them most.” About 379 collaborations have been inked towards sharing technologies, IFPMA points out.

Closely watching the IP arguments put forth by different organisations at multiple fora, Roshan John, a lawyer working on IP issues in medicine, cautioned country heads to ensure that an “ineffective” global framework did not get finalised, as that would set a bad precedent.

Published on May 15, 2022