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Health authorities push for a vaccine patent waiver to 'genuinely' prepare for the next pandemic

The World Trade Organization is meeting this week to consider adopting an agreement that could make it easier to produce COVID-19 vaccines and treatments by waiving patent enforcement during health emergencies.

But the latest version of an agreement doesn't go beyond vaccines, which some officials have pointed out are no longer relevant, and critics say it will not help in any way.

India and South Africa raised the so-called TRIPS waiver (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in October 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly two years later, the impact is likely only to be felt in future pandemics, if an agreement is reached this year.

"The ability to have the waiver was needed right at the beginning, and it's going to be needed for the next one," World Health Organization spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris told Yahoo Finance.

The proposed waiver is based on a recent proposal reached by four countries, including the U.S., but Canada and other Western powers have generally opposed anything beyond waiving Intellectual property for vaccines. It also has support from global voices of authority, such as Pope Francis, who tweeted on Friday, “Equitable access to safe and effective vaccines is fundamental to saving lives and livelihoods. Africa must not be left behind. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

While some public health officials have pushed for the waiver, drug industry advocates contend it could introduce new safety concerns. Instead, the industry has pushed for more domestic vaccine manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries — but even that solution has its shortcomings.

The problem of 'vaccine hoarding'

Global health authorities highlighted the lack of access in poorer nations even before vaccines for COVID-19 werre authorized globally. But that awareness has done little to solve the actual problem. As of the end of May, only two low-income countries, out of 27, have achieved 40% vaccination, according to the WHO.

Instead, high-income countries have spent billions of dollars on vaccine efforts largely contained within their own borders, as WHO’s Dr. Soumya Swaminathan noted during a Feb. 4 media briefing.

“We saw these phenomena of vaccine hoarding, of the high-income countries really putting billions of dollars into advance market commitments and advance purchase agreements," she said.

Local production capacity could be one way counteract vaccine hoarding. While some drugmakers have moved to produce COVID-19 vaccines in low-income countries, those efforts largely came after the most acute time of need.

A Bundung garage driver holds his arm after being vaccinated during a mobile vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in Banjul, Gambia May 11, 2022. Picture taken May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione
A Bundung garage driver holds his arm after being vaccinated during a mobile vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in Banjul, Gambia May 11, 2022. Picture taken May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione (Ngouda Dione / reuters)

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) was the only drugmaker that both conducted global clinical trials and had production available in Africa in 2020. But it came under fire by advocates and the government for exporting those doses out of the continent as African countries waited on their orders.

According to UNICEF data, J&J remains among the top contributors to vaccinations in lower income countries, including in Africa. That company, along with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Chinese vaccine manufacturers, make up the majority of vaccine doses in 92 low- and middle-income countries.

But other domestic manufacturing efforts have come late. Pfizer (PFE) struck an agreement last year with the Biovac Institute in South Africa that is set to be operational in the second half of 2022. It also only recently offered to provide its patented products to low- and middle-income countries at non-profit prices this year.

While Moderna (MRNA), has said it won't enforce its vaccine patent for low- and middle-income countries, it also declined to make its team available to help with tech transfers earlier on. Its domestic production agreement with Kenya was only signed this year.

'There is going to be a next one'

Peter Shapiro, a senior director at Global Data, said the interest in Africa signals that other parts of the globe may see increased vaccine access at some point.

“There’s definitely going to be, and already is, growth in the pharmaceutical industry in what previously had been thought of as secondary markets,” he said. “There’s going to be tremendous population growth in Africa, and hopefully the standard of living will continue to rise in Africa."

Still, he cautions that it will take time to ramp up vaccine manufacturing in poorer nations.

“This is not something that is easy to do in the most educationally advanced places in the developed world. Why would it be easy to do in a timely fashion (in developing countries)?” he said.

That's why the patent waiver could be one of the best options to ensure vaccine equity ahead of future public health crises, according to its proponents. The measure would allow brand-agnostic manufacturers to participate and aid in global production.

“This is laying the groundwork to ensure that we are really, genuinely prepared for the next one," said Harris, the WHO spokesperson. "And there is going to be a next one."

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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