Patent Waiver on Covid-19 Vaccines

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    Recently, the US has decided to support waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines.

    Background

    • In October 2020, India and South Africa submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
    • It asked for suspension of vaccine patents for the duration of the pandemic and sharing of the formula for jabs prepared by AstraZeneca and Pzifer.
    • The proposal argued this would make vaccines more affordable and allow poorer countries to acquire more doses easily.
    • The proposal was supported by more than 100 countries (mostly lower- and middle-income nations) and raised by human rights bodies and global advocacy groups. 
    • In March 2021, WTO called for vaccine patent rights to be waived until the end of the pandemic and suggested that countries with their own vaccine capacity should start waiving Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) as provided in special emergency provisions.
    • Politicians, civil society members, human rights bodies, health professionals and also pharmaceutical companies raised the demand to waive the patents.

    Opposition to Waivers and Reasons Given

    • The appeal to do away with IPRs was strongly opposed by some of the world’s largest economies including the European Union (EU) and the US.
    • The efforts have been largely unsuccessful so far in the face of lobbying by powerful pharmaceutical companies.
    • The issue of waiving IPR is one of conflict between human rights and commercial interests of powerful pharmaceutical companies. 
    • The pharmaceutical industry has been arguing that innovation as well as vaccine quality and safety depend on maintaining exclusive IPRs.
    • They have been further arguing that IPRs are important because of the money and effort that goes into research and development.
    • Lifting of patents would be a huge deterrent to their investing heavily on vaccine development during pandemics in the future and also disincentivise pharmaceutical companies.
    • They also highlighted that lifting of patents would be a compromise on control of safety and quality standards for vaccine manufacturing.
    • Faced with the possibility of losing out on their profit margins and the monopoly, drug companies were lobbying the US administration to block India’s push for a patent waiver at the WTO.

    Concerns Highlighted

    • Inequitable distribution of vaccines has opened up a glaring gap between developing and wealthier countries.
      • While a few developed countries have already given the shot to a considerable percentage of their population and are getting normalcy back into their lives, poorer nations continue to face shortages with overburdened healthcare systems and hundreds dying daily.
    • Vaccine experts and human rights groups have warned that the longer Covid circulates in developing nations, there is a greater chance of more vaccine-resistant, deadly mutations of the virus emerging.

    About US’s Latest Move

    • While signaling its intention to do away with patents, the administration highlighted that it strongly believes in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.
    • The nation aims to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.
    • It has been globally welcomed and especially by the lower- and middle-income nations
    • GAVI (the global vaccine alliance) and the EU have also welcomed the move with intentions to support it. 

    Significance of the Move

    • Currently, only drug companies which own patents are authorised to manufacture Covid vaccines.
    • A lifting of patent will allow the recipes to be shared and there will no longer be an embargo.
    • Simply put, once the formula is shared, any company which possesses the required technology and infrastructure can produce vaccines.
    • This will lead to cheaper and more generic versions of Covid vaccines making it more affordable.
    • It will be a big step in scaled up production and overcoming vaccine shortage and will increase global vaccine coverage.
    Patent

    • A patent represents a powerful IPR, and is an exclusive monopoly granted by a government to an inventor for a limited, pre-specified time.
    • It provides an enforceable legal right to prevent others from copying the invention. 
    • Patents can be either process patents or product patents.
      • A process patent enables any person other than the patent holder to manufacture the patented product by modifying certain processes in the manufacturing exercise.
      • A product patent ensures that the rights to the final product is protected, and anyone other than the patent holder can be restrained from manufacturing it during a specified period, even if they were to use a different process.
    • Patents in India
      • India moved from product patenting to process patenting in the 1970s, which enabled India to become a significant producer of generic drugs at global scale.
      • However, due to obligations arising out of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement, India had to amend the Patents Act in 2005, and switch to a product patents regime across the pharma, chemicals, and biotech sectors.

    Intellectual Property Rights

    • It refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
    • IP is protected by law, for example, patents, copyright and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from their inventions or creations.
    • The IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.
      • Innovation and creative endeavours are indispensable elements that drive economic growth and sustain the competitive edge of the economy of any country.

    World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

    • It is the global forum IP services, policy, information and cooperation.
    • It is a self-funding agency of the United Nations, with 193 member states.
    • Its mission is to lead the development of a balanced and effective international IP system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all.
    • Its mandate, governing bodies and procedures are set out in the WIPO Convention, which established WIPO in 1967.

    Source: IE