Public 'must get behind drive' to allow low-income countries make generic vaccines

Public 'must get behind drive' to allow low-income countries make generic vaccines

Kenyan doctors have said that donated vaccines are often very near expiry and cannot be used because of the required four-week gap between doses. File photo: AP/Themba Hadebe

The Irish public needs to get behind a call to share vaccine know-how with low-income countries in order to help Covid-19 be stopped around the world, doctors and aid workers have said.

The new Omicron variant should focus attention on increasing vaccine production globally as the current system of donations between countries is not working, according to Professor Susan Smith, a member of Doctors for Vaccine Equity in Ireland.

“The pandemic is never going to end until we address the global issue. We need more vaccines,” she said. “It is actually about the regulation. 

So for the companies who are currently producing the vaccines, their monopoly needs to be ended.

Prof. Smith, professor of General Practice at Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, has been told by Kenyan doctors that donated vaccines are often very near expiry and cannot be used because of the required four-week gap between doses.

This is not the first time in pandemic history such a need has arisen, she said, referring to compulsory licenses for HIV medication drugs introduced in countries like Mozambique and Brazil. 

“There are so many parallels with HIV, this all happened before. The death rates from HIV in low-income counties didn’t start dropping until they were allowed to make their own drugs generically,” she said.

“If we allow middle and low income counties to make their own vaccines, they will do it and they will prevent deaths.” 

There are now calls for a similar waiver around the World Trade Organisation’s ‘trade-related aspects of intellectual property (TRIPS)’ agreement to potentially increase vaccine supplies.

This was first suggested in October 2020 by India and South Africa, but has been vetoed so far. Pharmaceutical companies have strongly argued this is not appropriate, citing concerns about safety and the complexity of manufacturing processes.

“They normally have a right to intellectual property but the waiver removes that right in the context of a global pandemic. It does not apply to high-income counties,” Prof. Smith said.

“They continue to have their market protected in high-income countries and maintain their profit and it means low-income countries can be given the information to make their own vaccines.” 

Prof. Smith said the public can help with this. “They should write to their TD, this is now a political issue. Our government needs to use its influence within the EU to get the EU to stop blocking the TRIPS waiver,” she said.

“It is about political pressure, and I think if Irish politicians thought Irish people cared about this they would change how they acted.” 

On Monday, Oxfam Ireland warned of a “stark comparison” between Europe and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. They said the Democratic Republic of the Congo “has received enough doses to vaccinate just 1% of the country’s population”.  

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past 21 months,” said Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland CEO. “We now need Ireland and the EU to chart a new path forward. They must step up and insist the pharmaceutical companies start sharing their science and technology with qualified manufacturers around the world, so we can vaccinate people in all countries and finally end this pandemic.”

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