After more than a year of gridlock, the World Trade Organization (WTO) hailed a provisional agreement to relinquish patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines, though drugmakers warned that the decision could jeopardize the industry’s ability to respond to future health crises.
According to Reuters, the US, the European Union, India, and South Africa agreed on essential parameters for a waiver on Tuesday.
It now needs the support of all 164 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which makes decisions by consensus, so a single country’s rejection may still derail the agreement.
“This is a significant step forward,” said WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala after the deal was announced on Wednesday. “However, we aren’t quite there yet. We still have work to do to assure that the full WTO membership is behind us.”
If the deal is accepted, countries will be able to allow indigenous manufacturers to create vaccines without the permission of patent holders. However, only underdeveloped countries that account for less than 10% of worldwide Covid-19 shot exports in 2021 will be able to do so.
This appears to rule out China, but it does not appear to rule out India, which has restricted vaccine shipments for much of 2021.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), which represents global drugmakers, has expressed concern that the move could jeopardize their ability to respond to future crises.
“Biopharmaceutical businesses restate their position that weakening patents now, when it is widely understood that COVID-19 vaccine supply limits are no longer a problem,” stated IFPMA director general Thomas Cueni.
The suggestions, according to Cueni, are “political posturing that is at best a distraction, at worst creating uncertainty that will damage innovation’s ability to respond to current and future pandemic responses.”
He said that, thanks to collaboration within the legal patent protection system, the global pharmaceuticals industry was generating more than 1 billion vaccine doses per month, and that the focus should move from manufacturing to distribution in poorer countries.
Pfizer and BioNTech, Pfizer’s German vaccination partner, both declined to comment on the waiver program. In 2021 and 2022, the two have committed to providing 2 billion doses of their vaccine to low- and middle-income nations.
Another major COVID vaccine manufacturer, AstraZeneca, also declined to comment.
As supplies and donations have increased, COVAX, a global program to distribute vaccines to impoverished countries, has struggled to place more than 300 million doses this year. find out more
Poorer countries have faced obstacles such as a cold-chain shortage, vaccine hesitancy, and insufficient finances to facilitate delivery.