In recent weeks there has been a growing clamor with regard to addressing the issue of vaccine ‘apartheid’, or the inequity in access to vaccines (as of April 2021, the more affluent countries, which account for less than 20% of the global population, had bought 60% of confirmed orders – well over 4.6 billion doses).
African leaders have red-flagged the issue of lack of access to vaccinations and also how, due to poor access, rate of vaccination is slow. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has commented:
…no one is safe until everyone is safe, so all of us must be treated equally across the world and vaccines must be treated as a public good, available at affordable prices right across the board.
The rise in daily cases (more than 20 million Indians have been infected) and mortalities (in the month of April itself, there have been an estimated 40,000 casualties) as a result of COVID-19 in recent weeks in India has further brought this issue to center stage. Apart from the government being ill-prepared for the second wave, and the virtual collapse of the health system (even in the national capital there has been a shortage of beds and oxygen), the third wave is being attributed to the slow rate of vaccination: only 2% of the population has been fully inoculated with both doses, while less than 10% has received one dose. One of the reasons cited for the slow rate of vaccination has been India’s inability to ramp up its vaccine production which could be eased out if the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides an intellectual property waiver.
During an online address, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai underscored the point that addressing the issue of vaccine inequity is important not just from the point of public health but also from an economic standpoint.
One of the ways for increasing vaccination, as discussed earlier, is increasing the production and for this an Intellectual Property (IP) Waiver is essential. Both the Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, as well as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have repeatedly made this point. Both Brown and Tedros said that removing a waiver during an emergency situation was essential and this should be on the agenda of the G7 Summit to be held in June in the UK.
South Africa and India have, since October 2020, been seeking a waiver on certain provisions of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Pressure on the US to provide Intellectual Property waivers
There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to address the issue of vaccine apartheid and this has grown in recent days and weeks.
More than 170 heads of state and several Nobel Laureates wrote to US President Biden in favour of removing US IP rules for production of vaccines. This includes former French President Francois Hollande, Former British PM Gordon Brown, and Nobel Laureates Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.
10 Democratic Senators have also written to Biden to support the temporary TRIPS waiver.
Biden administration assistance to India and possibility of intellectual property waiver
In recent weeks, with the increasing number of cases in India, the Biden administration has unequivocally stated that it will assist India in dealing with the COVID-19 threat. Apart from President Biden and other senior officials from his administration who have assured all necessary help, Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, has asked pharmaceutical companies to help out either by ramping up their production or by transferring their technologies. Said Fauci:
You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a media interview, also stated:
We believe that the pharmaceutical companies should be supplying at scale and at cost to the entire world so that there is no barrier to everyone getting vaccinated.
On Wednesday, May 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it supported the waiver on Intellectual Property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in a statement, said:
This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
Why this announcement is important
The announcement is a significant development, given the pressure from numerous quarters, especially pharmaceutical lobbies. Founder of Microsoft and philanthropist Bill Gates, in a media interview, spoke against waiving patents. Said Gates:
It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines.
Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sponsored Gavi: the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership which seeks to increase low-income countries’ access to immunization. Gavi, alongside WHO, runs the COVAX to improve access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.
A trade group, PhRMA, has also warned against an IP waiver, and a number of Republicans have argued against such a step and wrote a letter to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
In conclusion, the Biden administration’s decision on May 6, 2021, needs to be hailed; it is important to address all issues which are obstructing the ramping up of global manufacturing of vaccines and preventing a faster rate of vaccination in less affluent countries. All stakeholders need to act fast to prevent the pandemic from spreading and taking more lives. Globalization, multilateralism, and talk of liberal values are of no use if the issue of vaccine apartheid is not addressed on a war footing.