Covid-19 vaccine inequity: the debate over patent waivers intensifies

Severe vaccine shortages in poorer countries have brought the issue of intellectual property rights to the forefront of the pharma industry. Darcy Jimenez examines the issue.

In the western world, Covid-19 vaccination programmes are well underway and life is inching towards normality – but for some countries, the pandemic is wreaking new levels of devastation.

India is grappling with a catastrophic second wave, having reported over 20 million coronavirus cases and over 250,000 deaths amid widespread oxygen shortages in hospitals.

The disparity in access to Covid-19 vaccines between rich and low-income countries has become impossible to ignore; according to UNICEF data, 86% of all doses given worldwide up to 30 March were administered to those in high- and upper-middle-income countries, while just 1% of jabs have been given to those in the world’s poorest.

Low-risk groups in the UK, US and Israel are becoming eligible for jabs, while vulnerable populations elsewhere remain at risk of contracting the virus. The hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries, as the pandemic ravages economically disadvantaged nations, has brought the issue of vaccine patents to the fore.

In October, India and South Africa submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organization to waive drug companies’ intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights treaty.

The waiver would allow vaccine makers in poorer countries to produce jabs without facing legal action from the companies that hold patents on the products.

Big pharma resists the move

The pharma industry has fiercely opposed the petition since it was filed, insisting that suspending IP rights to vaccines will remove the incentive for drug companies to innovate.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization president and CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath wrote in The Economist that the proposal “undermines the very system that produced the life-saving science in the first place”, and “destroys the incentive for companies to take risks to find solutions for the next health emergency”.

A report by The Intercept also found that over 100 pharma lobbyists have urged lawmakers and members of the Biden administration to squash the IP waiver request.

Proponents of the waiver have argued that pharma companies’ monopoly over vaccine production is unjust given that a number of Covid-19 vaccines have been publicly funded.

At least 97% of research into the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab has been funded with public money, while Moderna, Janssen and BioNTech – the German company Pfizer developed its vaccine with – all received hefty amounts of government funding.

It’s worth noting that the major Covid-19 vaccine makers, as well as a number of countries with a surplus of jabs, have made deals to contribute doses to the global vaccine-sharing initiative Covax.

However, vaccine hoarding, export bans and insufficient production capacity remain obstacles in the scheme’s ambitious goal to provide the world’s poorest countries with over two billion doses by the end of the year.

The IP waiver scheme has US backing – what now?

Despite the efforts of influential pharma lobbyists to block a temporary patent waiver, the Biden administration last week backed the proposal.

US trade representative Katherine Tai said in a statement: “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.

"We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization needed to make that happen.”