Easing of IP restrictions on vaccines is welcome. But it will need to be accompanied by technology transfers
Waiver of IP rights will not amount to anything substantial if pharma companies in the Third World do not have the know-how to produce medicines and vaccines.
Nearly two years after it was initiated by India and South Africa, a proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines has been approved by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The global trade agency’s 12th Ministerial in Geneva went into extra time to arrive at the decision, which, no doubt, is a shot in the arm for the principle of vaccine equity. The question, however, is: Will patent waiver, at the current stage of the pandemic, make a meaningful impact in the battle against the virus? In the lead-up to the WTO ministerial, India accused developing nations of dragging negotiations for far too long — New Delhi has, however, described the other day’s decision as “progressive”. Vaccine supply is no more the challenge it was at the beginning of this year. The argument that the deal has come too late is, therefore, correct to an extent. The vaccines currently in use provide protection against the more severe forms of Covid. But it’s also clear that these shots do not always guard against infection. The virus continues to pose new questions — the lingering after-effects of the disease in large numbers of Covid patients, for instance — even though it appears to have become less virulent. Information flows must, therefore, be geared towards developing second-generation preventives and therapeutics. Easing intellectual property restrictions should be seen as the first step in this endeavour.
Waiver of IP rights will not amount to anything substantial if pharma companies in the Third World do not have the know-how to produce medicines and vaccines. In India, for nearly five decades, the generic industry has reverse-engineered drugs to mass manufacture low-priced therapeutics. But vaccines present a different order of challenge: Manufacturers require not only patented knowledge but also partnerships with the original innovator to develop these preventives. Such arrangements help vaccine manufacturers mobilise technical skills and raw materials. Technology transfers were harbingers of some of the most effective interventions in the battle against the virus. The tie-up between pharma major AstraZeneca, Oxford University and the Serum Institute of India is a case in point.
There was a global consensus, very early in the pandemic, that knowledge sharing would be critical in the battle against the pathogen. However, this understanding did not translate into equitable distribution of the most potent shield against the virus. The WTO decision, though belated, is a corrective. Much more will be needed in the coming months.