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Coronavirus vaccines: Are poorer countries at risk of being left behind?

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By Luke Hurst
Campaigners want coronavirus treatments and technologies to be free from intellectual property laws
Campaigners want coronavirus treatments and technologies to be free from intellectual property laws   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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More than 100 countries are backing a proposal to waive certain intellectual property (IP) laws in relation to COVID-19, which they claim will boost the production of treatments, technologies, and crucially, vaccines.

It comes amid surging coronavirus cases in recent weeks even as positive developments, including the approval of COVID-19 vaccines in some countries, have given hope that there could be light at the end of the tunnel.

But many are concerned that some countries might not get fair access to the initial vaccine doses becoming available.

Campaigners are arguing that with rich countries buying up the doses they need in bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, as things stand, as many as 67 lower and middle-income countries who haven’t pursued similar deals could be left behind.

Oxfam has claimed nine out of 10 people in poorer countries are set to miss out on the vaccine in 2021.

One of the stumbling blocks to getting the vaccine in fair quantities, prices, and times to poorer countries are intellectual property laws, some say.

Fight over intellectual property laws

South Africa and India have already asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend these laws. Now, campaigners are pinning their hopes for the suspension of these laws on a proposal they have submitted to be discussed at the WTO General Council meeting on December 16-17.

The proposal calls for "the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how in order that rapid responses for the handling of COVID-19 can be put in place on a real-time basis," and that the waiver should continue until the majority of the world's population has immunity.

"There are several reports about intellectual property rights hindering or potentially hindering timely provisioning of affordable medical products to the patients," the proposal states.

“What this waiver proposal does is it opens space for further collaboration, for the transfer of technology and for more producers to come in to ensure that we have scalability in a much shorter period of time”, Mustaqeem De Gama, counsellor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO who helped write the proposal, said in an article in the Lancet.

Organisations working towards equal access to vaccines

The World Health Organization (WHO), along with other organisations, has aimed to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines - for "people in all corners of the world" - through its COVAX scheme.

It has long stated that all participating countries, regardless of income levels, will have equal access to vaccines once they are developed.

Its initial aim is to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021, enough, it says, to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 as well as healthcare workers.

Some have suggested that the COVAX scheme will be critically insufficient in helping lower and middle-income countries, which is where the proposal to waive IP rights has come into its own.

Opposition to the proposal

The proposal is opposed, however, by higher-income countries including the UK, the USA, Canada, Norway. The EU also opposes it, arguing in the same article that there is no evidence intellectual property will hamper access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Some who are opposed to the idea argue that coronavirus vaccines have only been produced in record time because of these laws.

Thomas Cueni, the director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, argued in the New York Times that it is "unclear how suspending patent protections would ensure fair distribution, "but that “the effort would jeopardise future medical innovation".

This is, he argues, is because the IP rights give inventors incentive to create new technologies and drugs. Manufacturers are taking on the financial risk of developing these new assets, and so they need the incentive of profits as a reward.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says these arguments are "misleading," and that it was public sector investment and philanthropic funding that have been the main drivers to create the vaccines.

"Defending monopoly protection is the antithesis to the current call for COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to be treated as global public goods,” said Yuan Qiong Hu, Policy Co-coordinator at MSF’s Access Campaign.

"In these unprecedented times, governments should act together in the interest of all people everywhere," she added.

Heidi Chow, from Global Justice Now, agreed that sharing knowledge is the best way forward for all the world's population.

"All pharmaceutical corporations and research institutions working on a vaccine must share the science, technological know-how, and intellectual property behind their vaccine so enough safe and effective doses can be produced," she said. "Governments must also ensure the pharmaceutical industry puts people’s lives before profits".