Allows a temporary waiver of intellectual property— disappoints both pro-health groups and Big Pharma

A good precedent or just half the battle won? Vaccine makers in India are divided on the Covid-19 vaccine-linked decision emerging in the wee hours of the morning from the World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva.

The decision from the just-concluded WTO 12 th Ministerial Conference allows a temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) on Covid-19 vaccines – a move that would allow more companies to make an innovator product, thereby improving its availability across the world.

This has Big Pharma disappointed.

But the decision also falls short of the initial ask from India, South Africa and 100 other countries and public health voices for an IP waiver on diagnostics and therapeutics too. This will now be taken up in six months.

This has pro-health groups disappointed.

‘Only half the battle won’

“The temporary IP waiver is useful, as it helps bring products quickly to the market. But it needs to be accompanied with technology transfer from the innovator – otherwise, it is only half the battle won,” Rajesh Jain, Managing Director, Panacea Biotec told BusinessLine. Vaccines are more complex than a chemical drug and require much physical effort in getting the strain, scale, quality and so on. It could take six to nine months depending on the vaccine, he said. “Vaccines are covered by a web of patents and there are submarine patents through which you need to swim,” he said

‘Progressive step’

A Serum Institute of India (SII) spokesperson, though pointed out that the pandemic saw innovators and vaccine developers partner to develop a life-saving vaccine at the earliest. And this led to “licensing deals like SII- Novovax, SII- AstraZeneca, J&J, and Aspen amongst many others. Today, the demand for vaccines is declining. That said, the patent waivers for Covid vaccines are an encouraging and progressive step towards safeguarding the accessibility and mass production of essential drugs and medicines, in the face of future pandemics.”

Presently, Indian vaccine makers collaborate to bring vaccines into India or export, as the case may be. Panacea Biotec, SII, Morepen, Dr Reddy’s and Wockhardt, to name a few, have separate collaborations on the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, for example and Biological E partners on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Morepen laboratories Chairman and Managing Director Sushil Suri says, the WTO waiver decision sets a good precedent, so scientists can start working on a product without litigation looming over their heads. A similar framework should be extended to other critical areas like cancer, he points out.

Disappointment all around

Humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International president  Christos Christou acknowledged that “a few changes” were made to the agreement “that mitigated some of the most worrisome elements of the earlier text presented in May 2022.” However, “we are disappointed that a true intellectual property waiver, proposed in October 2020 covering all Covid-19 medical tools and including all countries, could not be agreed, even during a pandemic that has claimed more than 15 million people’s lives,” the MSF representative said.

Max Lawson, Co-Chair with the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam, highlighted that, There are some worrying new obligations in this text that could actually make it harder for countries to access vaccines in a pandemic. We hope that developing countries will now take bolder action to exercise their rights to override vaccine intellectual property rules and, if necessary, circumvent them to save lives.”

‘Wrong signal’

Taking a diametrically opposite view, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) said, the WTO decision sent a “dangerous signal not only to the pharmaceutical industry but to all innovative sectors. Dismantling the very framework that has brought solutions to tackle Covid-19 and facilitated the unprecedented number of partnerships, voluntary licensing, and knowledge-sharing taking place during this pandemic can have ripple effects for the future”.

IP supported the fastest development and scale-up of safe and effective vaccines in history, with 13.9 billion Covid-19 vaccines produced to date. It also set the platform for more than 380 voluntary partnerships for C-19 vaccines, 88 percent of which involve technology transfer, IFPMA pointed out.

Published on June 17, 2022