Tue | Jan 18, 2022

More support for easing vaccine patent rules, but hurdles remain

Published:Thursday | May 6, 2021 | 2:35 PM
In this March 24, 2021, file photo, a vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, is removed from a portable cold storage box in preparation for a vaccination, in Machakos, Kenya. France joined the United States on Thursday, May 6, in supporting an easing of patent and other protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga, File)

GENEVA (AP) — Several world leaders Thursday praised a call by the United States to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries by removing patent protections on the shots.

But the proposal faces a multitude of hurdles, including resistance from the pharmaceutical industry.

Nor is it clear what effect such a step might have on the campaign to vanquish the outbreak.

Activists and humanitarian institutions cheered after the US reversed course Wednesday and called for a waiver of intellectual property protections on the vaccine.

The decision ultimately is up to the 164-member World Trade Organization and if just one country votes against a waiver, the proposal will fail.

The Biden administration announcement made the US the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa in October.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron embraced it as well.

“I completely favor this opening up of the intellectual property,” Macron said at a vaccine centre.

However, like many pharmaceutical companies, Macron insisted that a waiver would not solve the problem of access to vaccines.

He said manufacturers in places like Africa are not now equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines, so donations of shots from wealthier countries should be given priority instead.

Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca — all companies with licensed COVID-19 vaccines — had no immediate comment, though Moderna has long said it will not pursue rivals for patent infringement during the pandemic.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the urgency of moving fast now.

“On the current trajectory, if we don't do more, if the entire world doesn't do more, the world won't be vaccinated until 2024,” he said in an interview with NBC while visiting Ukraine.

India, as expected, welcomed the move.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the US position “great news.”

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the US announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines.

But Italian Premier Mario Draghi was more circumspect.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would support it.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the US decision too.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office spoke out against it, saying: “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”

A Merkel spokeswoman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Germany is focused instead on how to increase vaccine manufacturers' production capacity

In closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months, Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the United States opposed the waiver idea, according to a Geneva-based trade official who was not authorized the discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some 80 countries, mostly developing ones, have supported the proposal, the official said.

China and Russia — two other major COVID-19 vaccine makers — didn't express a position but were open to further discussion, the official said.

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