To waive or not to waive intellectual property rights of vaccines to fight the SARSCoV2 pandemic, specially in hard-hit countries like India… that is the question. 

Last May 5, U.S. President Joe Biden announced he would be backing a proposal made at the World Trade Organization (WTO) so that vaccines become more affordable and accessible to countries in desperate need of fighting the virus.

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) signed in 1994 as a result of the Uruguay Round negotiations carried out in the then GATT, relates to the standards of patent protection to be accorded to inventions in the area of pharmaceuticals, among other provisions. Public health is a matter of concern that has led to conflicts with pharmaceutical companies, for instance in the use of generic versions of patented antiretrovirals in countries hard hit by AIDS, such as South Africa. In that country there has been a strong debate on the using of good quality generic versions of patented medicines when providers cannot meet the demand. Compulsory licenses have been carried out in countries like Brazil and India, to improve access to life-saving medicines. Since the production of COVID-19 vaccines is far from meeting the demand worldwide, these provisions could apply under the TRIPS agreement.

The support from the US Government comes at a time when pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines have made huge profits during the pandemic. Pfizer, the producer of one of the most effective vaccine against COVID-19 has pushed governments to exempt the company from criminal and civil liability in case its vaccine provokes side effects in vaccinated persons with its formula. Alberto Fernández, the President of Argentina, rejected an agreement with Pfizer and instead favored AstraZeneca and Sputnik V. Pfizer’s demands on Peru went even further, since the pharmaceutical giant required payment guarantees, including state property as collateral. It seems Pfizer has placed profit above human lives.

Thus, the move by Biden is understandable. Pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines are, no doubt, the winners of this crisis. Yet they have warned the U.S. President that the initiative may prevent companies from responding to the pandemic and also claim safety of vaccines may be compromised.

One may remember that China, already the major producer of COVID-19 vaccines argued they should become commonly available across the globe and patents need to be donated so that anyone can have access to them. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines, however, is not as high as Pfizer’s, AstraZeneca’s or Sputnik V’s. Speaking about the Russian vaccine, sadly the country lacks the production capabilities needed to satisfy a growing demand. That lets down many countries and these are left with few options but to agree to the terms and conditions of pharmaceutical companies that, as the case of Pfizer shows, intend to advance their profits and commercial interests. This should not be the case, especially in times of sorrow. As the crisis in India shows, unless access to vaccines and vaccination are granted, new waves and strains of the virus may develop, slowing the economic and social recovery needed all over the world. 

So far, the WHO has warned about the risks of countries being left behind due to a lack of access to vaccines. Herd immunity against SARSCoV2 may be achieved only when 60 to 70 percent of the population is immune. Most of existing vaccines require two doses – and Pfizer may require a third shot, as suggested recently by the company. Only China’s CanSino and U.S.’s Johnson & Johnson are single shot vaccines. In Latin America as of May 7, Chile was leading the vaccination process with 37.33 percent of its population covered, followed by Uruguay, with 22. 27 percent. The two giants of the region, Mexico and Brazil have only a coverage rate of 7.23 and 7.13 percent, respectively. Yet small and more vulnerable countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Paraguay rank between 0.5 and two percent of coverage of its population. The situation is so desperate that Guatemala and Honduras began the administration of Moderna doses donated by Israel, even though the vaccine has not been approved in either of these countries. Hopefully Biden’s decision may change that since health should be the top priority and as the situation in India shows, it is very easy for the situation to worsen in the blink of an eye. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María-Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Rosas can be reached via email at: [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a man receiving a dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India, May 6, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni)

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