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Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC
Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC

Multinational pharmaceutical companies have criticised the push by SA and India to introduce an intellectual property (IP) waiver on Covid-19 vaccines. They say that lack of infrastructure rather than patent barriers stand in the way of Africa’s access to jabs.                

SA and India launched a campaign 18 months ago for the World Trade Organization to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, to enable large-scale production of cheap generics.

Thomas Cueni, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said on Wednesday that vaccine nationalism, export bans and lack of support for international vaccine-sharing mechanism Covax were responsible for last year’s inequitable distribution of shots, which saw Africa sent to the back of the queue.

“These were the causes of vaccine inequity last year, and not as many would wish you to believe, something that can be solved with a waiver on IP on Covid products,” he said in an online press briefing.

The problem had now shifted as Covid-19 vaccines were in plentiful supply, but poorer countries lacked the capacity to administer the jabs, he said.

“Countries as well as organisations such as Africa CDC are not only asking for orders to be delayed but are cancelling them,” he said. 

“I am stunned that the IP waiver is still debated while supplies are far outstripping demand. IP has never been a hindrance to scaling up vaccine manufacturing, but has been an enabler of tech transfer and other forms of voluntary licensing.”

Weakening patents sent the wrong signal to investors, he said.

Hundreds of activists and nonprofit organisations wrote this week to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging them to reject a compromise deal struck in February by negotiatiors for the US, EU, India and SA that limits the waiver to Covid-19 vaccines.

They said the leaked text favoured the interests of the US and EU at the expense of developing countries.

More than 100 countries initially backed the plan flighted by SA and India in October 2020. The US has since shifted its position to supporting a waiver solely for vaccines, a view shared by New Zealand and Australia. Pharmaceutical companies that hold patents on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments have opposed the proposed waiver from the outset.

Eli Lilly CEO Dave Ricks said the global pharmaceutical industry produced more than a billion Covid-19 vaccines per month. “It is not a supply problem, or a demand problem, but a matching of the two. An IP waiver will do nothing to change that,” he said.

The global pharmaceutical industry could develop vaccines and treatments for the pandemic at unprecedented speed thanks to the international patent framework, which gave companies confidence to invest in underlying technology that had been repurposed to tackle Covid-19, he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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