International support grew yesterday for a US proposal to waive patents on much-needed coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccines, as India posted record deaths and infections from a catastrophic wave swamping the country.
Rich nations have faced accusations of hoarding shots while poor countries struggle to get inoculation programmes off the ground, with the virus surging across the developing world in contrast to the easing of restrictions in Europe and the United States.
Under intense pressure to ease protections for vaccine manufacturers, Washington’s Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Wednesday that the country “supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines”.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief has hailed Tai’s announcement.
“I warmly welcome her willingness to engage with proponents of a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement to help in combating the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement, read to reporters by her spokesman Keith Rockwell.
The TRIPS agreement is short for the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement.
World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the announcement was “a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19”.
The African Union’s health watchdog also praised it as a “remarkable expression of leadership”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently voiced reluctance to waive patents, but said yesterday that Brussels was ready to discuss the proposal, a stance echoed by European economic powerhouse Germany.
There was far more enthusiasm from other national capitals, including Paris, Rome, and Vienna.
“This pandemic has taught us that we can only win together,” said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he supported the idea of a waiver on patent protections for coronavirus vaccines, as Russia registered a single-dose virus jab called Sputnik Light.
However, the move is opposed by a consortium of big pharmaceutical companies, which described the decision as “disappointing” and warned that it could hamper innovation.
Shares in Asia-listed vaccine makers – including Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, CanSino Biologics and JCR Pharmaceutical – tumbled yesterday after the US announcement.
Supporters of the waiver say that easing patent restrictions will spur production of low-cost generic vaccines, helping poor countries that are struggling to immunise their people.
Opponents argue the move will damage intellectual property rights and erode the profit incentive, ultimately affecting pharmaceutical research and development.
German firm BioNTech said patent protection was not holding back production or supply of Covid-19 vaccines and that scrapping them would not lead to an increase in jabs in the short and medium term.
Switzerland voiced scepticism over a US-backed proposal to waive patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines, but said it was open to discussion.
The Swiss State Secretariate for Economic Affairs (SECO) told AFP that it was aware of Washington’s “significant” announcement on Wednesday.
“Like other WTO members, Switzerland remains convinced that a suspension of intellectual property protection rights in the context of the pandemic would not guarantee equitable, affordable and quick access to vaccines, treatments and diagnostic products against Covid-19,” it said in an e-mail. “That kind of access would rather require tight and harmonious co-operation between all the concerned actors.”
The SECO added though that Switzerland “of course remains open to pursuing work on these questions within the framework of the WTO, and to discussing possible solutions to the difficulties”.
“In this context, Switzerland will evaluate the new proposal by the United States ... as well as the consequences for the Swiss position.”
The German government has also stressed the importance of keeping patent protections intact.
“The US suggestion for the lifting of patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines has significant implications for vaccine production as a whole,” said a government spokeswoman, stressing that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future”.
The pandemic has killed more than 3.2mn people worldwide since the virus first emerged in late 2019, according to an AFP compilation of official data.
The US is the worst-affected country with almost 580,000 deaths, followed by Brazil with over 414,000, and then India with over 230,000.
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