By Anuradha Nagaraj, Anastasia Moloney and Kim Harrisberg
May 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United States' announcement that it backs waiving intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines could be a "game-changer" in the global fight to control the pandemic, health experts said on Thursday.
The surprise move comes amid fears that India's escalating coronavirus crisis, along with new variants circulating in India and elsewhere, could stymie efforts to curb the disease unless vaccination levels are rapidly ramped up worldwide.
South Africa and India are leading efforts to temporarily waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to boost supply to developing countries.
At least 100 out of the 164 WTO member states support the waiver, but others, including Australia, Britain, Japan, Switzerland, and the European Union, oppose it — as do drugmakers.
Pharmaceutical companies argue that strong IP protection helped them develop vaccines in record time, and will do so again for new variants or in a future pandemic.
The WHO said in April that only 0.2% of the 700 million vaccines administered globally had been in low-income countries. Africa's vaccination coverage is the lowest for any region.
We asked health experts in the global south for their reaction.
Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India
"This is a very welcome move which will help to strengthen the global pandemic response. Patents restrict access to impactful technologies and constrict the ability of health systems to provide essential health care to the many millions who are affected by COVID-19.
"A global pandemic is not the time to limit the speed and scale of production of vaccines, medicines, personal protection equipment, and monitoring devices. If global leaders are earnest in their statements that no country is safe till every country is safe, this is the time to share global resources equitably.
"President Biden has risen to the occasion as a true statesman ... This complements his global climate change initiatives, to draw the world together for providing a global thrust against any global threat."
Matshidiso Moeti, Africa Regional Director at the World Health Organization
"This could mark a game-changer for Africa, unlocking millions more doses and saving countless more lives. We commend the leadership shown by these countries and urge others to back them at the WTO, including for life-saving therapeutics.
"We hope negotiations are quickly wrapped up so we can ramp up the manufacturing and roll-out of safe and effective vaccines. No country is safe until all countries are safe."
Fatima Hassan, Director of the Health Justice Initiative, Cape Town, South Africa
"These are the first major steps to vaccinate the world against COVID-19. The pressure from many individuals and groups has yielded far-reaching results with the US government supporting the... waiver, on vaccines.
"Now, text-based negotiations — as called for by South Africa and India — must be expedited and transparent, and not deferential to pharmaceutical companies — without watering down the original waiver proposal."
German Casas, Head of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) for Latin America
"It's an act of total solidarity by the US government. It's a clear message to the world ... that the only way to end COVID-19 is through mass vaccination under the same banner.
"It's an act that sees human beings as a global community and not one differentiated by unequal access to immunization — the only current possibility we have for defeating COVID-19.
"It breaks the paradigm that it's impossible to give up intellectual property rights for legal and political reasons, and for the protection of national manufacturing industries.
"Other countries should follow the example set by the US government. This unprecedented situation requires a global response. Such a courageous decision shows solidarity is possible."
Sheila Davis, Chief Executive of Partners in Health, a global NGO working in Haiti, Mexico, and Peru, among other countries
"It's a first step. We are so pleased that the Biden administration is showing solidarity. But this is not a silver bullet. This has to be accompanied by robust funding, the sharing of knowledge, and getting vaccine manufacturing ramped up.
"We are very concerned about Haiti, which has so far not received any vaccines, and Peru where much more access to vaccines is needed."
Some contributions have been edited and shortened for clarity.
(Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)