Picture: ALAISTER RUSSEL/SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: ALAISTER RUSSEL/SUNDAY TIMES

With patients in India dying in the streets and crematoriums melting from overuse, pressure is building on the US and other rich nations to waive patents so that anyone, anywhere can produce Covid-19 vaccines.

There’s no question that boosting global manufacturing and distribution of vaccines should be an overriding priority, but the argument about intellectual property (IP) is missing a crucial point. IP waivers, by themselves, won’t get the job done.

The issue will be front and centre at World Trade Organization meetings this week. India, SA and more than 50 other countries are demanding a temporary waiver of IP rights for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

They say rich countries have cornered the market on vaccine supplies, inoculating their populations 25 times faster than poor countries and refusing to share stockpiles until their own needs are met. Meanwhile India, which has fully vaccinated barely 2% of its population, is setting world records as new cases reach 400,000 per day.

Closing this gap is a moral imperative. It’s also in everyone’s interests. The coronavirus variant contributing to India’s surge has already spread to the US, UK and elsewhere. Other mutations will emerge if the pandemic isn’t brought under control. 

Trouble is, merely letting other drug makers produce Covid-19 vaccines doesn’t mean they can. Even if they could reverse engineer the vaccines — unlikely, especially for the newer mRNA technology — they’d still lack the personnel, specialised technology, critical inputs and manufacturing techniques to produce at scale.

The real challenge is to induce and enable vaccine makers such as Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and others to expand their output or partner with others, licensing their technology and sharing the full range of supporting know-how.

Generous financial support for the main developers to expand their production and distribution in low-income countries should be the first line of attack. But the fastest way to scale up will often be by repurposing other firms’ factories, under licence and under the main developers’ supervision. /New York, May 3

Bloomberg Opinion

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