More than 100 countries are backing the call for Covid-19 vaccines patent waivers to help developing nations battling to control the pandemic get more jabs, and the Omicron variant raise additional concern.
Alarm over the spread of the new strain has highlighted what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called “vaccine apartheid” as low-income countries have only received a tiny fraction of the 8 billion doses administered globally in the last year.
Richer nations ramp up booster drives, while some countries have not yet vaccinated 1% of their population.
Supporters say a waiver would save lives in poorer countries and help prevent the emergence of more deadly and resistant variants that could pose a threat across the world.
But a handful of wealthy countries and major drug makers oppose such a move, saying it would harm future vaccine development.
India and South Africa first proposed a temporary waiver to intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020.
Known as the TRIPS waiver in reference to the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property agreement, it would give low- and middle-income countries the right to make their own vaccines.
Since then, more than a hundred countries back the proposal for sharing technology and know-how, including the United States, which reversed its position in May.
They say there cannot be a repeat of the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when a lack of access to life-saving medicines cost millions of African lives.
The WHO and many former world leaders and Nobel Laureates are also pressing for a waiver, along with hundreds of aid agencies, civil society and human rights groups.
With Covid-19 having already claimed more than 5 million lives, many accuse those blocking the proposal of protecting big pharmaceutical firms’ profits at the expense of public health.
Opponents include the European Union and countries including Britain and Switzerland, which host pharmaceutical firms.
Major Covid-19 vaccine companies include Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.
They are generally against waiving their IP rights, although Moderna has said it will not enforce its Covid-19 vaccine patents during the pandemic.
Pharmaceutical companies say vaccine development is unpredictable and costly, and that strong IP protection helped drive the development of Covid-19 vaccines in record time.
A waiver could undermine efforts to adapt vaccines to new Covid-19 strains and impact research and investment for future medical innovation, they say.
However, supporters of a waiver argue that large amounts of public money also helped fund the development of the Covid-19 vaccines. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)