Experts say vaccine patent waiver key to ending global pandemic

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

7/05/2021 3:58:12 PM

As the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world, Australia is among the developed nations yet to formally support the proposal to help ensure equitable access to COVID vaccines.

Indian person treated on makeshift hospital bed
Hospitals in India are buckling under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of daily COVID cases. (Image: AAP)

It was in October 2020 that India and South Africa first launched a global proposal for a waiver of certain provisions of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) TRIPS Agreement to allow any pharmaceutical manufacturer to make the COVID vaccines, and to distribute them.
That proposal has since garnered the support of more than 100 countries, now including France, Spain and, most recently, the US.
But Australia, along with the UK, EU, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil and Norway, are still withholding their support.
Upon hearing of the US’ commitment, Australia’s Federal Minister for Trade Dan Tehan said the country welcomed the news as a ‘positive development’ and looks forward to finding solutions ‘that boost the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines’, but did not commit to the proposal.
If the waiver is endorsed, it will include patents, trade secrets, copyright, and industrial design for the duration of the pandemic, and would cover not only vaccines but other COVID-19 products such as medicines, diagnostics, masks and ventilators.
Without the waiver, it is predicted more than 85 low-income countries will not have widespread vaccination rollout until 2023 – if at all.
Simon Eccleshall is Head of Programs at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been strongly advocating in favour of the TRIPS waiver since it was first proposed last year.
He told newsGP it is great to see that Australia looks to be changing its position, which he says is an ‘important piece of the puzzle’ in addressing the pandemic on a global scale.
‘Australia said it wasn’t blocking the waiver, but it had been actively engaged in the process of asking questions, stalling, and delaying the resolution on the proposal at the TRIPS Council in Geneva,’ Mr Eccleshall said.
‘So [it is] really good to hear that Australia says it wants to take more of a leadership role and that they support the efforts that the TRIPS waiver would support in increasing global production.’
For Stuart Turville, an Associate Professor in the Immunovirology and Pathogenesis Program at the Kirby Institute, a move that ensures equitable vaccine supply makes nothing but sense – from public health and humanitarian points of view.
‘A lot of the work that we do as academic researchers we’re doing for the benefit of human health and I think that people should benefit from it,’ he told newsGP.
He says the frightening progression of the virus, and ongoing spread of emerging variants, in countries such as India and Brazil indicates there is a real need for global leaders to step up and take a global, rather than national, approach vaccination strategy.
‘You continually hear these reports, “The USA [has vaccinated] five million today, four million tomorrow”, But then you look at the situation in Brazil,’ Associate Professor Turville said.
‘We really need to put a lid on this [and] start to strategically think, how many doses can we produce? Who’s producing them? And how can we really knuckle this down – not only in one country, like Israel or the UK or the US – but globally?
‘Because if you let it off the hook in Brazil, if you let it off the hook in India – and there’s other countries, too – you’re going to end up with those rare events that we saw late last year with the different viruses coming out doing gnarly things.’

Australia last year joined the global COVAX scheme. (Image: AAP) 

Pharmaceutical companies are fierce opponents of the waiver, arguing it would not speed up vaccine production and that it would only set a precedent that could remove the incentive for firms to invest in future innovations.
But without the waiver, Mr Eccleshall says the future looks grim, adding that we need only look back at what has unfolded globally in the past year.
‘We’d pretty much have the same situation that we’ve experienced since the beginning of the pandemic last year and that situation has resulted in … more than three million deaths,’ he said.
‘It’s resulted in the distribution of vaccines, which is highly distorted in favour of high-income countries with the ability to sign deals with big pharmaceutical companies, and very, very little supply – less than 0.3% of the global supply of vaccines – actually going to the low-income countries.
‘In many contexts, they’re the ones badly affected by the COVID pandemic and in dire need of vaccines.’
Mr Eccleshall says the hope is that the TRIPS waiver will level the playing field.
‘It will provide much more vaccine availability and it will mean for many developing countries that were low down on the priority list for the existing vaccines that they’ll be able to access vaccines earlier,’ he said.
‘That won’t necessarily mean in the next weeks or months, but it might mean that instead of having to wait till 2022 or 2023 before they get significant amounts of vaccine, they might be able to get them sooner, and we might be able to win the pandemic sooner for everyone.’
Associate Professor Sturville strongly agrees, and says if global leaders can get the vaccine rollout right strategically, it could very well be the key to ending the global pandemic earlier.
‘The problem is with everyone not playing nice together … and that’s always been the fly in the ointment for a lot of vaccines and a lot of vaccine rollouts,’ he said.
‘There’s a lot of diseases out there that we shouldn’t have at the moment – things like polio. We’ve got the vaccines for them, but it’s just the political nuances that hold back the ability for us to really nail these things and get rid of them like we do with smallpox.
‘As a scientist looking at it as a global disease, it’s a little bit like “Oh come on, guys; you can generate billions of these vaccines, now you need to start to think laterally about this”.’
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Dr Adam Louws   8/05/2021 8:27:02 AM

Bad move. I like having new medicines available to treat diseases. How long until heart disease, cancer and others are considered a good enough reason to remove patent protection, and pharmaceutical companies stop R+D because it's not worth it?

Dr Peter James Strickland   8/05/2021 12:08:42 PM

Our experience with influenza shows we will NOT stop mutant strains of Covid 19 emerging --it only needs a small sector on Earth to have that mutant and spread it rapidly unknowingly, and even if vaccinated. Research expenses by drug companies need to be respected, and if other companies/governments are given the go-ahead , then they should pay a reasonable amount for the research costs. It depends on whether Pfizer, AstraZeneca etc. can (or are prepared) to upgrade their facilities to manufacture to produce billions of doses. Like influenza and Covid 19 vaccinated patients, it doesn't stop those patients again transmitting the infections to others world-wide. The aim is to make the virus non-controlling on our lives for the future, isn't it?