Picture: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai
Picture: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on governments around the world to support SA and India’s proposal to waive aspects of global intellectual property laws to ensure affordable and accessible Covid-19 vaccines, once safe and effective products have been developed.

On October 2, the two countries asked the World Trade Organisation to let nations choose not to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights related to Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Vaccine research has moved at an unprecedented pace since the genetic sequence of the Sars-Cov-2 virus was published in January, and 44 candidate products are currently being tested in human volunteers, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Another 154 potential vaccines are in preclinical evaluation. The race to develop a vaccine has been accompanied by an international scramble for advance access that has seen rich nations elbow emerging economies out the way. The UK, for example, has placed orders for six different experimental Covid-19 vaccines being developed by pharmaceutical companies, giving it a potential stockpile of 340-million doses.

SA has not placed any advance orders for experimental vaccines and is instead pinning its hopes on the Covax facility, a global scheme for the future distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Covax is co-ordinated by the WHO, the global vaccine alliance Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and aims to have two-billion doses ready for distribution by the end of 2021. SA has expressed interest in the scheme, but has not yet formally signed up.

The government is reviewing potential Covax facility agreements, but has yet to finalise financing or the volume of vaccine to be procured, said the health department’s director for affordable medicines, Khadija Jamaloodien. “We are looking to cover at least 10% of the population, but could go as high as 50 percent, depending on price,” she said.

Making the case for intellectual property rights to be waived on Covid-19 vaccines, HRW said governments had an obligation to ensure the benefits of research funded with public money were shared as widely as possible. Governments were using public money on an “unprecedented scale” to fund research and development of potential shots against the disease and should be more transparent about the terms and conditions attached to these projects, it said in report released on Thursday.

“You can’t fight a global pandemic by allowing publicly funded vaccines to go to the highest bidder, at whatever price pharmaceutical companies set,” said HRW researcher Margaret Wurth. “When a safe and effective vaccine is found, it should be available and affordable for everyone, everywhere.”

HRW said governments had given more than $19bn to Covid-19 vaccine research, development, manufacturing, and distribution by mid-September, citing research by the Australia-based think-tank Policy Cures Research.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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