Pandemic is a global problem. But the fight against it is not truly global. Commercial greed of big pharma companies, vaccine nationalism of richer nations, lopsided vaccine policies are leading to humongous vaccine inequalities. The virus doesn’t recognize national borders and the political and economic contours of global order. It spreads across continents. It mutates to emerge as more dangerous variants. Thus, no one is safe until everyone is safe is should be the fundamental principle of global pandemic management.
Against this backdrop, the proposal to waive Intellectual Property Rights(IPR) is before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for its favourable consideration. India and South Africa with active support from more than 100 low and middle-income countries are leading this international crusade for the waiver of IPRs. Progressive lawmakers in the developed world have backed the move. In a remarkable development, President Biden living up to his electoral promise, pledged his support for this crusade. France is not hostile. Canada, Japan, and China have also backed the proposal. However, Germany seems to be opposed to the demand. The European Union is yet to take a final call. The big pharma industry is in jittery as the IPR waiver allowing for the manufacturing of generic vaccines would hit their super-profits.
To be or not to be, the world has to wait for several months. Even if the WTO waives the TRIPS, there will be many a slip between the cup and the lip. The vaccine innovators and other big pharma companies that deal with raw materials and intermediaries which go into vaccine production have to share trained manpower, raw material, high-tech equipment, etc. This is essential to ensure good manufacturing practices at other facilities that intend to manufacture generic vaccines.
The safety and efficacy of these generic vaccines should have to be on par with the vaccine innovators. This is certainly a difficult task, especially in the manufacturing of biological materials. Thus, not just the WTO waiver, the big pharma companies and the developed nations where they are located should be honest in ensuring technology transfer. Meanwhile, other options like compulsory licensing, wherein other companies manufacture branded vaccines by paying royalty to the innovator should also be explored to ramp up vaccine production. Joint ventures across frontiers should be promoted. Serum institute collaborating with Oxford- Astrazeneca, DR Reddy Labs partnering with Russian Direct Investment Fund(RDIF) for production of Sputnik V are few such illustrations. Governments can even buy the patents on vaccines from pharma companies and put them in open source for other capable companies to manufacture. Vaccine innovators should be encouraged to pursue voluntary licensing thereby technology is shared with other companies for mutual advantage. Do whatever is possible. Massively ramp up vaccine production. Expedite supply chains. Make them affordable.
-By Prof K Nageshwar