US backs Covid-19 vaccine IP waiver; global pharma companies irked


The US’s sudden support for a waiver of patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines — in response to requests from countries such as India — is heading to the World Trade Organization (WTO), setting the stage for potentially thorny negotiations over sharing the proprietary know-how needed to boost global supplies of the life-saving shots.

WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has urged member nations to support India as it continues to battle the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the commerce ministry said, “We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO.

The waiver is an important step for enabling rapid scaling up of manufacture and timely availability of affordable Covid 19 vaccines and essential medical products.”

Global pharma majors are however not amused. Representatives for the world’s major pharmaceutical and medical companies have warned Group of 20 leaders that moves to weaken intellectual property rights protection will reduce investments and hurt innovation.

The warning comes in a report prepared for G-20 leaders by representatives of health and life-sciences companies including Novartis AG, Sanofi FP, AstraZeneca PLC and Johnson & Johnson, and from organisations such as the OECD and Europe’s EFPIA pharmaceutical industry association.

US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai said an “extraordinary measure” to support waiver of intellectual property (IP) protection on Covid-19 vaccines had been taken to help end the pandemic.

World Health Organization (WHO) D G Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the White House’s support for the temporary waiver of intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines reflected the wisdom and moral leadership of the US to support vaccine equity.

Experts said the US coming forward and showing support would have a domino effect as there will be pressure on other countries to fall in line. “The US has risen to the occasion and taken up the leadership role once again. It’s a very significant development though there will be tough negotiations ahead. There will also be enormous pressure on other nations to support the waiver and others will have to act in tandem,” said Jayant Dasgupta, former Indian ambassador to the WTO.

India and South Africa, along with 57 other WTO members, have co-sponsored a proposal for a temporary waiver on certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. The waiver, if adopted, will help nations overcome legal barriers stopping them from coming up with their own vaccine for Covid-19.

The development comes soon after US Congress members last week urged President Joe Biden to support India and South Africa on the TRIPS waiver. Besides, there has been mounting criticism that developed nations are hoarding vaccines. Till now, countries have been divided on the issue, with some developed ones such as the European Union (EU) and Japan opposing it amid concerns that such waivers will take away protection given to pharma companies.

In a bid to reconcile positions, India is also planning to submit a revised proposal on TRIPS, which is a multilateral agreement on intellectual property.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a virtual conference in Florence on Thursday: “The EU is ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”

The US and Europe have been strong supporters of IP protections at the WTO over the years, particularly as a way to enforce problems like Chinese patent infringement.

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