Richer members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked a push by over 80 developing countries on Wednesday to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations.
South Africa and India renewed their bid to waive rules of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, a move that could allow generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines.
South Africa argued the current TRIPS system does not work, pointing to the failure to secure life-saving medicines during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that had cost at least 11 million African lives.
Medecins Sans Frontieres in October put together a letter signed by over 375 civil society organisations supporting the waiver.
The South Africa and India proposal was backed by dozens of largely developing countries at the WTO, but opposed by Western countries, including Britain, Switzerland, EU nations and the United States, which have large domestic pharmaceutical industries.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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.
India is a major manufacturer of generics, although many of the largest generic companies are based in Western and developed countries, including Viatris, Sandoz and Teva.
Western nations argue protecting intellectual property rights encouraged research and innovation and that suspending those rights would not result in a sudden surge of vaccine supply.
In its eighth discussion on the topic since it was first raised in October, the WTO's TRIPS Council spent three hours debating, but failed to agree. Proposals need backing by a consensus of the WTO's 164 members to pass.
They did at least agree to discuss the matter twice again in April before the next scheduled TRIPS Council meeting on June 8-9.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who became WTO director-general on March 1, called the intensifying TRIPS discussions "vitally important," but said governments and businesses needed to act now to increase production, especially in emerging markets.
She said in a speech on Tuesday that manufacturers should come together with bodies such as the World Health Organization and vaccines alliance GAVI, whose board she used to chair, and business associations to look into options.
"We must make sure that in the end we deliver so that the millions of people who are waiting for us with bated breath know that we are working on concrete solutions," the former Nigerian finance and foreign minister said.