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Need 3-year global IPR waiver for COVID vaccines, drugs and health technology, India tells WTO

India’s updated proposal on the global IPR waiver has the support of 62 nations and aims to end the pandemic quickly, but it has been opposed by the European Union, the UK and Australia. It will be next discussed on June 8-9 by the TRIPS council of the WTO.

June 02, 2021 / 12:59 PM IST
Representative Image (Image: Reuters)

Representative Image (Image: Reuters)

An at least three-year long waiver of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) globally for COVID-19 vaccines as well as waivers for the inclusion of requisite drugs, medical equipment and all health technologies necessary for the prevention of COVID-19 has been suggested by India at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

India’s updated draft of its proposed IPR waiver, sponsored by 62 nations, was submitted to the WTO on May 21 and discussed by the powerful council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on May 30.

While India now has the unofficial backing of nearly 120 countries, major global powers such as the European Union, the UK, Australia and Singapore have expressed their discomfort at a 'potential blanket suspension of the terms of the TRIPS agreement'.

Though the US support further talks, it doesn’t back IPR waiver for drugs and health technology, sources said.

As a result, lengthy discussions on the issue may start and partisan stalling by a few nations, typical of the WTO, may hold up the process. All WTO decisions are based on unanimity.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Most of the negotiations, going forward, is expected to hinge on how countries come to an agreement on which technologies and drugs are necessary for the 'prevention and containment of COVID-19' and how terms such as 'life-saving' and 'crucial for human recuperation from the pandemic' are defined, sources said.

Indian argument

Research and computer modelling of the spread of the virus, especially in Global South (broadly refers to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania), necessitates such a relatively long period to effectively inoculate everyone, a senior trade negotiator for the government said.

“We have repeatedly said this is not a permanent waiver and that it will be categorically revisited on an annual basis. However, at the beginning, given the extent and severity of the pandemic, it has been decided that the initial period of the waiver be up to three years. This figure has been arrived at after consulting our partner-nations," he explained.

At informal meetings, India had also assured the EU and the US that it would not seek an extension, once the health implications of the pandemic are reasonably brought under control globally.

Instead, it has sharpened the attack against developed economies, saying their indecisiveness to act swiftly on the issue and needless posturing on the legality of an IPR waiver has cost up to 2 million more lives in the Global South.

At the latest TRIPS council meeting, India's ambassador to the WTO, Brajendra Navnit, also stressed that developed nations have procured more vaccines than they realistically need, which has led to poorer nations currently facing up to a two-year delay in getting vaccines.

"Till now, New Delhi has also, on multiple occasions, reiterated its point that the West has dragged its feet on the proposal, and, therefore, it is responsible for delaying effective global vaccine distribution," a senior trade official based in Geneva said.

India and South Africa had requested WTO members eight months back, in early October 2020, to suspend certain parts of the global TRIPS agreement. But the proposal had languished after opposition from rich nations, especially the US under the previous Donald Trump administration, which said that intellectual property rights of pharma companies are non-negotiable.

After President Joe Biden took over, Moneycontrol was the first to report on April 14 that Washington DC would soon commit to the proposal.

The proposal

A US commitment, nations had pointed out, would boost the availability of jabs worldwide as vaccines, medicines and testing technology for COVID-19 can be easily shared without falling foul of patent laws.

Coming into effect on January 1, 1995, the TRIPS agreement is till date the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property and a core WTO document.

New Delhi had specifically suggested a waiver from the implementation, application, and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment, or treatment of COVID-19.

Moneycontrol had earlier reported how the waiver could cut down the end date of the pandemic.
Subhayan Chakraborty
first published: Jun 2, 2021 12:59 pm

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