Rein in the vaccine nationalism, the profiteering


The WTO has a role in getting pharma firms and countries to treat vaccines and life-saving medicines as a public good

  • It is illegal to hoard, for black marketing, essential goods in drought-affected areas. Overcharging of commodities and services during any natural disaster is always a scandal. 
  • Such solidarity is a recognition of the need to: prevent further damage and destruction, rescue and evacuate affected people to safer zones, and salvage belongings and meet their minimal survival needs. 
  • It is considered as relief work which comes out profusely as charity; a humane gesture.


Business out of suffering

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is also a human tragedy and needs global solidarity. It is definitely not a time to be doing business and making a fast buck. 
  • When economies crumbled in many countries, e-commerce and gadget-based gaming business boomed. 
  • In a liberalised economy, there is a shocking silence in the global market trying to do business out of human suffering. 
  • Business lies in selling technologies around COVID-19, the diagnostics, drugs and vaccine candidates. 
  • This is where organisations of the United Nations and global networks for people should come together in one voice. 
  • The World Health Assembly, in May 2020, in cognisance of the obstacles to equitable access to COVID-19 technologies such as vaccines, diagnostics, medicines, PPE kits and machines, set up mechanisms to counter it. 

Mechanisms that can help

  • We cannot allow the rich and the strong to grab everything first. The advance purchase agreements that some countries have negotiated with pharmaceutical companies exemplify such adverse trends. 
  • Such vaccine nationalism undermines equitable access to vaccines. There has to be prioritisation for high-risk groups in all countries, especially in the least developed, low- and middle-income nations. 
  • That framework has to be accepted by the global community without dispute. In this, the COVAX partnership is a mechanism for ensuring that.


Governments have a part

  • A public good is a common property of the nation and such goods are not excludable or there should not be any rivalries in dealing with it. 
  • If it is a public good, governments must step in to regulate its development, innovation, manufacture, sale, and supply ultimately to the public. 
  • If there is public financing for technology development, there is no scope for grant of patent protection. 
  • A public good cannot be submitted to the vagaries of market fluctuations of pricing dependent on demand-supply dynamics. 
  • Compulsory licensing is an “involuntary contract” issued by the national government between a “willing buyer” or local manufacturer and an “unwilling seller” or patent holder foreign company. 
  • India utilised this provision for the first time on March 9, 2012 to grant licence to Natco Pharma Hyderabad against the will of patent owner Bayer, Germany, to manufacture Sorafenib tosylate, a life- saving anti-cancer drug for kidney and liver tumours, with 97% cost reduction. 
  • COVID-19 vaccine candidates are still in Phase 3 trials; regulatory approval and patent are still awaited. So, failure to comply with patent regulations as a reason for the issue of compulsory licence cannot be applied. 
  • Coercion to issue “voluntary licensing” to subsidiary companies in many developing countries such as India, Egypt, Thailand and Brazil by the patent holder is another option.


A chance to act

  • Seizing the opportunity of the WTO itself mapping out key trade issues arising out of COVID-19 vaccine and fostering dialogue, India and South Africa jointly sent out a communication, on October 2, 2020 to the IPR Council of the WTO for a waiver of the protection of copyright, design, trademarks and patent on COVID-19 related technologies including vaccines.
  • It is claimed that India’s submission has the support of 43 members of the African group and 36 members of Least Developed countries group apart from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries, Indonesia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
  • If this is decided favourably as a special case considering the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, it will set a precedent.
  • A UN organisation such as the WTO can wield influence on member-nations to forgo trade profits for a humanitarian cause.
  • Global campaigns through the media and civil society organisations can garner enough momentum to exert pressure on TRIPS. This is a pragmatic step for the time being.
  • But having nothing less than vaccines and life-saving medicines being treated as a public good must definitely be the long-term goal.
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