Jim Clarken: We need global vaccine equity, not excuses

Waiving patents would speed inoculation to those who need it most — so let's take apart all of the excuses for not doing so
Jim Clarken: We need global vaccine equity, not excuses

Leo Varadkar played down the initially supportive noises from senior Government figures after Joe Biden said he'd support waiving patents on vaccines to accelerate their rollout around the world.

US president Joe Biden’s announcement in support of waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines to help increase global vaccine production is massive step in the right direction. Disappointingly, initial signals of support for the US announcement from senior Irish ministers such as Simon Coveney and Stephen Donnelly were quickly downplayed by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. 

By the end of last weekend, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his European counterparts, including those initially supportive, papered over significant differences in positioning between and within countries by urging caution. This is hugely regretful for the billions of unvaccinated people around the world because the reasons put forward by EU leaders to support their approach do not stand up to scrutiny.

'There is no idle vaccine production capacity'
This is not the case. Companies in Israel, Canada, Bangladesh, South Korea, and Pakistan all have tried in vain to obtain the rights to increase production of Covid-19 vaccines, but have been unable to. Knowledge Ecology International has identified at least 144 manufacturing facilities in 35 countries that could potentially be used to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines — if we had an open system with distributed manufacturing, tech transfer and intellectual property (IP) was waived.

President Joe Biden speaks about distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, in the East Room of the White House, Monday, May 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks about distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, in the East Room of the White House, Monday, May 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week Leo Varadkar stated: “Very few countries in the global south have the infrastructural know-how or the materials to make those vaccines and there’s no point in giving somebody a recipe if they don’t have the kitchen or the cooking skills or the ingredients.” 

There are already manufacturers making safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines and medicines in South Africa, India, and Brazil. There is plenty more qualified capacity that we can draw on, from Bangladesh to Senegal, to Vietnam. 

It’s simply not true that expertise for high quality production doesn't exist in the global south. 

For example, in response to a recent call made by the WHO for manufacturers interested in making the mRNA vaccines in developing countries, 50 companies stepped forward. It is disappointing that such evidence-free statements about production capacity in the global south — last used during the HIV/AIDS crisis two decades ago — are being recycled by our leaders. We must remember that, during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, affordable treatment was denied to people with HIV in poorer nations and millions died needlessly as a result.

'A licensing approach will work best'
Micheál Martin was reported as favouring “a fair licensing system” to increase production capacity, but it is unclear what he meant by this. If it is a proposal for more bilateral closed-doors commercial deals in the same vein as the current exclusive licencing model, it will continue to fail to secure greater access to developing countries where there is more limited profit to be made. 

A key flaw in such a proposal is that the global response to the pandemic would remain in the hands of a small number of companies who will continue to decide how many vaccines are made, who they are sold to, and for what price.

'The US should end its own export bans on vaccines and materials' 
Yes, of course the US should end its export ban — but this shouldn’t be an excuse to stand in opposition to the waiver of IP on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. The continued existence of export bans actually shows how important it is that we manufacture vaccines in distributed sites all over the world, and the key to doing this is the ending of pharmaceutical monopolies and to ensure the sharing of vaccine technology.

Dr Kenneth Maturgo takes a photo as a health worker inoculates Leopoldo Lacadan with the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine beside his makeshift store in Manila, Philippines. Picture: Aaron Favila/AP Photo
Dr Kenneth Maturgo takes a photo as a health worker inoculates Leopoldo Lacadan with the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine beside his makeshift store in Manila, Philippines. Picture: Aaron Favila/AP Photo

'Quality cannot be assured'

An often-heard argument, again bringing back memories of the early days of the AIDS treatment crisis, is that when you open up IP you cannot control quality. Assuring quality of vaccines is essential, but it has little to do with the protection of intellectual property. To ensure that Covid-19 vaccines are of assured quality, the World Health Organization runs a Covid-19 prequalification program, where producers must submit their products for assessment.

'Negotiations on an IP waiver will take too long' 

This is the most spurious reason for not supporting the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) waiver, given that negotiations have been stalled at the World Trade Organization by the EU amongst others since October 2020 when a proposal was first put forward by South Africa and India. The quick conclusion of negotiations is dependent on blockers like the EU ending unacceptable delaying tactics.

'Waiving patents will not increase vaccine production' 

It is true that waiving IP alone is not the only step, but it is an essential one. Producing a vaccine is a complex process and requires access to the intellectual property, but also direct transfer of technology, knowledge, and — in some cases — materials. Closing the know-how gap requires proactive technology sharing — a reasonable proposition, considering that the technology was developed thanks to massive amounts of public money. 

The WHO understood this when, more than a year ago, it created the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP, and invited vaccine producers to collaborate to meet the enormous global need for Covid vaccines, an approach recently supported by the joint Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs. However, so far, the Covid-19 vaccine-makers have refused to engage with C-TAP.

People wait to receive their Covid-19 shots in Mumbai, India. File picture: Rajanish Kakade/AP Photo
People wait to receive their Covid-19 shots in Mumbai, India. File picture: Rajanish Kakade/AP Photo

Witnessing this reluctance originally prompted South Africa and India to propose the TRIPS waiver, which is now supported by over 100 countries. They are seeking more forceful legal measures to gain access to IP related to life-saving technologies. Rich countries should support this and use all policy and legal tools available to insist that pharmaceutical companies also share the vaccine science and know-how with the WHO.

A significant increase in vaccine production capacity is essential to bring the pandemic under control and will likely remain so for years to come. We all are all thankful that Ireland’s vaccine rollout is gathering speed, but it must be remembered that the global pandemic is far from over. 

Almost 100,000 people are dying of this virus every week in countries without sufficient access to the vaccine. Just 0.2% of the vaccines distributed so far have gone to low-income countries.

To win the race against the virus and its new variants, supplying the entire world’s population with vaccines needs to happen urgently and equitably.

This is why Oxfam Ireland — along with a number of other NGOs, faith organisations, trade unions, and medical organisations — have proposed that a relevant Oireachtas committee undertake a detailed review of Ireland’s position on the TRIPS waiver as a matter of urgency. As Ireland and the EU begins to see the benefits of reaching herd immunity through mass vaccination, we should not be standing in the way of the world’s poorest citizens being afforded the same access to life-saving medicine.

• Jim Clarken is the CEO of Oxfam

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