Editorial: Ray of hope amidst gloom

Biden’s decision to support the waiver of IP protection rules is a monumental moment in the fight against the virus

AuthorPublished: 7th May 2021  12:56 am

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions. There is no better time than the once-in-a-century pandemic to demonstrate global solidarity to save human lives. The decision of the United States to support the waiver of Intellectual Property (IP) protection rules on Covid-19 vaccines is a monumental moment in the fight against the virus and a first step towards achieving vaccine equity. The Biden Administration deserves kudos for the move that would help speed up the inoculation drives worldwide. This is an illustration of how global leadership can address the health challenges and make a difference, particularly in poor nations. The next step would involve negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on Covid-19 vaccines. Granting a TRIPS waiver would require the support of a large majority of the 164-member WTO. Given Washington’s effective veto power over the institution, Biden Administration’s support would be decisive. India and South Africa were among the first to campaign for the IP waiver. Over 100 other countries, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), have joined in and supported it. However, due to the strong opposition of the US and other European nations that are home to big pharmaceutical companies, there was no forward movement. While the importance of intellectual property for innovation cannot be overemphasised, there comes a time in human history when nations have to set aside commercial imperatives in the larger interests of mankind. This is certainly one such moment. A short-term TRIPS waiver would allow developing nations to quickly ramp up vaccine production and save lives at an affordable cost.

However, ramping up manufacturing capabilities in developing countries conforming to the specific standards of modern vaccines, particularly the mRNA vaccines, cannot happen overnight. The broad waiver of TRIPS is the best way to inoculate a majority of the global population in the quickest possible time as it will allow many countries to temporarily suspend the intellectual property restrictions that currently prevent the ramping up of vaccine manufacture. Ending the coronavirus pandemic requires global collaboration, solidarity, and empathy. Pharmaceutical giants must realise that saving lives is more important than protecting their already excessive profits. Given what is at stake, this is the best chance for the WTO to be able to come together to deliver something that is going to help people and make a difference. When the choice was between protecting a patent regime that safeguards the interests of powerful multinational corporations and saving millions of lives in poorer countries by temporarily waiving the patent rights and empowering developing nations to defend themselves, Biden has demonstrated the courage to choose the latter.