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Explainer: Activists, drug groups in waiver war over COVID-19 shot patents

ZURICH (Reuters) - A World Trade Organization (WTO) council is discussing a proposal by India and South Africa that COVID-19 vaccine and other medical patents be suspended to speed up technology transfers to manufacturers with spare production capacity.

FILE PHOTO: A health worker opens a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine under the COVAX scheme against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya March 5, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

The idea, to waive rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement to potentially increase supplies of vaccines, seems simple. But some experts say its benefits are not so clear.

Below we lay out the reasons.

WHAT IS THE LATEST STATUS?

Western nations on March 10 again blocked the proposal by India and South Africa that patents for COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic-fighting technologies be suspended, an effort meant to speed up production by manufacturers with spare capacity.

This marked the eighth time the issue has been discussed at the World Trade Organization. The consensus-driven trade body did agree to discuss the matter again before another TRIPS Council meeting in June.

WHAT’S BEING DISCUSSED?

In October, India and South Africa proposed suspending provisions of TRIPS for the pandemic’s duration, contending they hinder the COVID-19 fight and curb access to drugs.

Dozens of nations have expressed support, as has Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times,” he said, “when will be the right time?”

MSF has said countries could immediately scale up production, speeding deliveries to poorer nations that just now, via the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme led by the GAVI vaccines alliance, are getting shots after wealthier nations were first in line.

The WTO’s TRIPS Council, designed to monitor and resolve IP issues, meets again on June 8-9 where the proposal may re-emerge.

Still, getting something through the WTO is a tall order: Proposals need backing by a consensus of the 164 members to pass.

WHY IS IT AN ISSUE?

It has gained more support and attention as concerns grow about getting shots to the world’s poorest people while shortages of supplies are hampering rollouts in even the wealthiest regions of the world.

A report by anti-poverty campaigners published in February said that rich countries have secured more than a billion more doses than they need, highlighting the divide between rich and poor.

WHO’S AGAINST IT?

Big drug companies oppose patent waivers, with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, saying there is no evidence it would boost vaccine production or access.

It said in a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on March 5 that eliminating protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic, including efforts to tackle new variants, create confusion that could hurt public confidence in vaccine safety and create a barrier to information sharing.

“The proposal marks a significant escalation in anti-IP global activism and will further polarize legitimate conversations on countries’ engagement to combat the pandemic,” PhRMA said.

Britain, Switzerland and the United States, home to big pharmaceutical industries, dislike it too.

Industry contends that appropriate patent protections ensure that private investors have an incentive to pump money into research and development.

IS THERE A PRECEDENT FOR THIS?

Two decades ago, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe issued compulsory licences for HIV/AIDS drugs, followed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, which meant that governments were allowed to waive IP rights without the licence owners’ consent.

These moves, after talks with drugmakers failed, drastically cut AIDS drug costs and boosted access.

Advocates including South Africa and India hope their current waiver push reaps similar results, contending “unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how” will expand the COVID-19 response to neglected areas.

IS THERE A CASE OR A NEED FOR IT NOW?

Big Pharma, and even some groups pushing to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to developing nations, say vaccine-making is difficult, so suspending patents alone won’t bring more shots.

The Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN), which pushes for more manufacturing in poorer nations, agrees that giving away IP is not the answer.

Unlike the simpler-to-make AIDS drugs of two decades ago, complex vaccines require deep cooperation between developers and manufacturers, DCVMN President Sai Prasad said.

“It’s not a single, monolithic IP that can manufacture these products,” said Prasad, also an executive at Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech.

Oxford University’s Sarah Gilbert, who partnered with AstraZeneca on its vaccine, told British lawmakers much the same.

“I really want to get rid of the idea that we should just be sharing the IP and let everybody make their own vaccines,” Gilbert said.

Vaccine makers are already cooperating, too, with Novartis, Merck and Sanofi pitching in to help numerous vaccine makers with manufacturing and fill-and-finish capacity.

Richard Hatchett, who leads the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an alliance promoting vaccine development, said this week IP barriers were “not an acute problem”, and that bottlenecks like raw material shortages were a bigger concern.

WHAT MIGHT BE THE OUTCOME?

Newly installed WTO head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has hinted at a compromise, what she called a “third way”, to broaden patent sharing within the existing framework of multilateral rules to speed the COVID-19 response.

She said in a speech on March 9 that the TRIPS Council discussions were vitally important, but “the fact is that each additional day the vaccine shortage continues, people will pay with their lives”.

Her idea to support more licensing of vaccines has won support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential U.S. business lobby.

Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Josephine Mason and Nick Macfie

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