ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—A group of developing countries, led by South Africa and India, say they will press at the World Trade Organization this week to free Covid-19 vaccines from patent protections so they can be more accessible and affordable for poor countries.
The pandemic requires a temporary suspension of the world’s usual intellectual property system, the countries say they will argue at a WTO council meeting this Friday. If poorer countries aren’t given special access to the vaccines, which are expected to hit the market by the start of next year, the group of developing nations say they will argue, they will continue to be devastated by the coronavirus even as it is stopped in the West.
The proposed waiver pits the developing nations against the U.S., the European Union, Japan and other wealthier countries, as well as Western pharmaceutical companies, which say respecting intellectual property rights is key to promoting the rapid development of the vaccines.
Developed nations have already struck deals with Western pharmaceutical companies to buy up enough vaccines to tie up most of the world’s production capacity until the end of 2021.
If the developed nations don’t relent, South Africa is prepared to try to force the issue through a rare contested vote at the trade organization, said Mustaqeem De Gama, counselor at the South African mission to the WTO. Decisions made at the trade organization are usually done on consensus.
“I don’t understand how governments of the world are able to outsource their responsibility for public health to a few companies that are able to hold them all ransom,” Mr. De Gama said.
The countries asking for a waiver from WTO members say there is unused manufacturing capacity in developing nations that could be harnessed to copy vaccines. Existing exemptions in trade law aren’t adequate to quickly allow countries to copy the vaccines or distribute them to other poor countries that have no manufacturing capacity, they say.
The most developed countries, which have fought for decades for better patent protection for pharmaceuticals, say the potential profits are an important driver of research and development, and ignoring patents could damage the engine of innovation that has helped develop vaccines so quickly.
Health experts say having a vaccine is just one front in a two-front battle against Covid-19. The other is effective treatments for those who are already sick with the disease. WSJ breaks down the three most promising types in development. Photo Illustration: Jacob Reynolds/WSJ.
“The United States is committed to helping to ensure the swift delivery of potential Covid-19 therapeutics and vaccines around the globe,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said. “We believe that facilitating incentives for innovation and competition to develop, test, and produce safe and effective therapeutics and vaccines for the Covid-19 response, including by respecting intellectual property rights, will best achieve this objective.”
The European Union says intellectual property “is part of the solution rather than an obstacle,” while the U.K. also says it isn’t clear that patents are a barrier to supply, calling the proposal “an extreme measure to address an unproven problem.”
“Confiscating the intellectual property of innovators will only undermine our efforts to combat Covid-19,” said Brian Newell, a spokesman for BIO, a biotechnology industry association, which includes members developing Covid-19 vaccines.
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China, which has four vaccines in final trials, has said it is open to discussions on a possible waiver.
Some of the emerging-market governments are complaining that words about solidarity and fair distribution from richer countries haven’t been matched by action. While the West is looking to vaccinate most of its population by the end of 2021, developing countries fear they may have to wait many years to access the vaccines and funding they will need to inoculate their populations.
A Duke University study this month found that mostly rich countries have purchased up to nine billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines. The U.S., which has bought the most, has deals for up to 2.6 billion doses, the report said, for its population of 330 million. Among the developing nations, India, the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines, has lined up the most: 1.6 billion doses, according to the Duke study.
The World Health Organization has set up a voluntary mechanism to share coronavirus-related intellectual property rights. So far, not a single pharmaceutical company has contributed to it.
South Africa successfully fought 20 years ago to have patent protections for HIV drugs lifted for poorer countries, allowing generic manufacturers to make much cheaper copies.
To succeed with Covid-19, South Africa and its allies will need the support of 75% of the member nations of the WTO.
“South Africa and India have a strong chance of winning if they can convince the supermajority of countries who are not benefiting from preferential advance purchase agreements and options for Covid-19 health products that their interest lies in bonding together rather than fall prey to threats from rich countries,” said Brook Baker, a professor of law at Northeastern University.
South Africa says its stance is gathering support since it floated the proposal in October. The proposed intellectual property-rights waiver would cover not only vaccines but also therapies, equipment and protective gear related to Covid-19, and last as long as the pandemic does.
South Africa plans to convene the WTO’s council to debate the issue Friday. Mr. De Gama said given the urgency of the pandemic, there is only a small window of opportunity, for the next two or three months, for rich nations to change their positions, before the issue must be put to a vote.
Among countries backing the proposal are Kenya, Pakistan, Venezuela and Argentina. The initiative is also supported by UNAIDS, a specialist body of the United Nations tasked with tackling HIV/AIDS. Many more countries say they are considering support. So far, among developing countries, only Brazil has opposed it.
A global initiative known as Covax, backed by the World Health Organization, is trying to raise billions of dollars from richer nations to finance collective buying of Covid-19 vaccine for developing nations, while preserving intellectual property rights.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. hasn’t supported Covax but says it has given $1.5 billion in Covid-19-related aid to poorer nations.
Covax says it has so far reserved around 450 million doses of vaccine for 92 developing countries, which have a combined population of 3.9 billion. The vaccine typically requires two doses, meaning this would cover around 225 million people. The nations supporting the WTO waiver welcome Covax but say it isn’t enough.
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