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US backs plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents

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Demonstrators in Washington hold a rally to ‘Free the Vaccine’, calling on the US to commit to sharing vaccine formulas with the world to help ensure that every nation has access. AFP

US backs plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents

US President Joe Biden's administration on May 5 announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.

India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines – a move pharma giants opposed.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington "supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines" in order to end the pandemic.

"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she said in a statement.

Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding Covid-19 vaccines.

World Health Organisation (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the US decision "historic" and marked "a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19".

Tai cautioned that negotiations "will take time given the consensus-based nature" of the WTO.

The aim "is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible", she said.

With supplies for people in the US secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts "to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution", and will work to "increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines".

For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.

WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on May 5 described as the "moral and economic issue of our time."

But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.

"A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem," the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as "disappointing".

Tai in recent weeks has met with executives from all the major US vaccine producers – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – to discuss the issue.

While the US has reached the point of offering donuts and beer to vaccine holdouts, India reported 3,780 new pandemic deaths and not enough doses to inoculate its people.

India has in recent weeks endured a devastating surge in coronavirus cases, with more than 380,000 infections reported on May 5.

K Vijay Raghavan, the Indian government's principal scientific adviser, said the country of 1.3 billion people had to prepare for a new wave of infections even after beating down the current wave, which has taken the country's caseload above 20 million infections.

In an effort to boost the country's collapsing health system, India's reserve bank announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals and health firms.

India's crisis has been partly fuelled by a lack of vaccines. This has in turn exacerbated the global shortage as India is the world's biggest producer of Covid shots.

In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy democracies committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing programme, Covax.

But there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding.

Though his country is not a group member, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was in London for the G7 talks but had to hold his meetings virtually after possible exposure to virus cases.

The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide since it first emerged in late 2019, but many wealthy nations have made progress in suppressing the virus as mass vaccination campaigns gather steam.

More than 1.2 billion doses have been administered globally, but fewer than one per cent in the least developed countries.

Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the US, which could soon be sitting on as many as 300 million extra doses – nearly equivalent to its entire population.

Biden on May 4 said he wanted 70 per cent of US adults to have received at least one shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

He also said his administration was "ready to move immediately" if regulators authorise the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.

Experts question the wisdom of devoting limited vaccine supplies to a low-risk group instead of sharing them with high-risk groups abroad.

"Vaccinating more people in the US is not going to help us if the variants in India, Nepal and South Asia get out of control and hit our shores," said Priya Sampathkumar, chair of Infection Prevention and Control at the Mayo Clinic in the state of Minnesota.

UCSF physician and epidemiologist Vinay Prasad slammed the idea of vaccinating low-risk US adolescents before 70-year-olds globally as "a terrible error".

In the Middle East, Egypt announced a partial shutdown of malls and restaurants and called off festivities for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr to curb rising coronavirus cases.

Serbia's president meanwhile said his country would pay each citizen around $30 to get vaccinated, in what could be the world's first cash-for-jabs scheme.

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