US backing for vaccine patent waiver a game changer in India's Covid fight?

Express News Service
NEW Delhi: A crucial decision by the US administration to support a waiver on intellectual property protection on Covid-19 vaccines could help Indian vaccine makers produce inexpensive foreign-made vaccines, but experts caution that there are still hurdles ahead.

This initiative on such a waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa in October last year.

US president Joe Biden on Wednesday expressed his support for the waiver – in reversal to the country’s position earlier – and his remarks were followed by a statement from his top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, who endorsed the negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement.

The major decision by the Biden administration comes amid growing concerns that the huge Covid-19 outbreak in India could lead to outbreaks in other countries too, in times to come, even though most of them seem to be recovering from the infectious disease now.  

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Experts in India, which has been struggling to ensure vaccine supply to a significant chunk of population due to acute supply shortage, while welcoming the move also said that this development should be seen with caution.

“To my understanding, it is a laudable step and will help countries like India in procuring higher doses of vaccines at lower costs if the World Trade Organisation agrees to the proposal and vaccine makers transfer their formula with local companies,” said Manisha Gupta, an IPR expert.

She however also said that a possible hurdle in the way could be ensuring the quality of products if the foreign vaccine makers share the technology.

“Countries like India will have to ensure that only companies which are capable of maintaining quality get the license to make generic versions of the vaccines,” she added.

Some others like IPR lawyer Deepshikha Malhotra also stressed that the advantage could ultimately depend on the agreements later between the patent holders and local license seekers once the waiver is granted by the WTO.

Also, she said, the companies which may get the license through the international agreements may have to fulfill all the regulatory requirements, as is the case now.

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Former Union health secretary Sujatha K Rao, meanwhile, welcomed the development saying that it brings hope for much-needed vaccine equity to low- and middle-income countries.

“In days to come, it is likely to enable vaccine production at very affordable prices helping governments provide it free to all and the price will no longer be a barrier to access,” she hoped.

A few trade experts though pointed out that most Indian vaccine companies seem to be happy to work through exclusive pacts and do not favour free technology transfers.

Serum Institute of India, for instance, has signed pacts with AstraZeneca and Novavax while Biological E has entered into an agreement with Johnson & Johnson for its Covid-19 vaccine.