Access to COVID vaccine patents is not the same as access to vaccines

The US has backed India and South Africa’s bid to temporarily lift patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines. The support for an IP waiver by the WTO has left pharma companies dismayed and health activists asking for more.

US President Joe Biden has thrown his support behind efforts by India, South Africa and dozens of other countries to temporarily suspend intellectual property (IP) protections for coronavirus vaccines, offering hope for countries struggling for doses and leaving vaccine makers exasperated.

The reversal of the previous US position comes as a deadly second wave of the coronavirus sweeps through India, leaving tens of thousands dead and many more infected over the past few weeks. The virus has overwhelmed the country’s already dilapidated health care system with patients struggling for hospital beds and medical oxygen.

Public health activists say the easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines will allow drugmakers in poor countries to start production of effective vaccines sooner and speed up the end of the pandemic, which if allowed to rage could see the emergence of vaccine-resistant COVID variants.

“This [the US move] is very significant. The US government has a long tradition of punishing countries that import or produce drugs without the pharmaceutical companies’ permission even during times of crisis,” said Sapna Kumar, a professor of Intellectual Property Law at the University of Houston.

“There is a growing realization that pharmaceutical companies have really been calling all the shots and that perhaps they haven’t been acting in the public interest and maybe it’s time for the government to take a more aggressive approach,” she told DW.

“It’s worth saying that governments such as Germany and the United States have paid a lot of the money for this research and that only a small sliver of pharma companies’ profits come from lower-income countries.”

 

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