The Biden administration’s decision to throw its weight behind a proposal for a temporary waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents has been dubbed a game-changer in the fight against the pandemic. But major pharmaceutical companies and public health officials in India—one of the countries most devastated by the virus—warn that the move alone will do very little to speed up the global production and distribution of vaccines.
Sudharshan Jain, secretary-general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA)—an association of big Indian pharma companies based in Mumbai—said that he sees the announcement as a “positive” yet limited step for equitable access to the vaccine, not just in India, but across the globe.
“Intellectual property rights are important to protect innovation, but it is imperative that these laws do not act as a hindrance to the accessibility of medicine needed to defeat this pandemic,” Jain told The Daily Beast.
But while Jain is optimistic about the recent developments, he said the patent waiver will not be enough—not unless the U.S. is also ready for the transfer of technology and voluntary licensing.
“If the U.S. frees the patent, but the technology isn’t passed on to manufacturers in India and other countries, then it will not make any difference to the global supply chain of the vaccine,” he said.
India, which is currently battling a second and a much more aggressive wave of COVID-19, is stuttering in its inoculation drive. In the past week, the country has reported an average of 390,000 new cases everyday. Only 2.6 percent of the country’s population has been vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.
He stressed that the sharing of technology—which is not yet on the table—would be absolutely essential for “our production capabilities to be realized, and to meet the global demand for the vaccine,” adding that “the know-how could be shared at a royalty, or other modalities could be worked out for it to work.”
India is the largest provider of generic drugs globally. The Indian pharmaceutical industry also caters to a large part of the global demand for various vaccines. And what’s more important is that India sells these life-saving drugs at a much cheaper price than its Western counterparts, making them more accessible to poorer countries. But without access to the information and technology required to produce COVID vaccines, that potential is all but wasted.
Last year, the Serum Institute of India (SII)—the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer— partnered with AstraZeneca to produce a billion doses of the Covishield vaccine at $3 per dose, the cheapest in the world. Compare that to the price at which the U.S. government has made deals with Pfizer and Moderna—$19.50 and $37 per dose.
But SII cannot go it alone. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Adar Poonawalla, CEO of SII, acknowledged that his company alone won’t be able shoulder the burden of manufacturing vaccines for all of India, let alone a major chunk of the Global South. Poonawalla is currently holed up in London after allegedly receiving threats from politicians to secure vaccines.
Over the last six months, some 60 member countries of the World Trade Organization, led by India and South Africa, had been calling for intellectual property rights on the vaccines to be set aside, at least temporarily, so that they could have better access to it.
KM Gopakumar, an Indian expert on trade and global intellectual property, acknowledged the significance of the Biden administration’s announcement. He said that the U.S.’s support for the original proposal—which calls for a waiver on both intellectual property rights of vaccines and life-savings drugs—could be a major boost in the global fight against the virus. But still, he explained, the White House’s support is only the “first step” in a series of long negotiations.
“We don’t have a timeline of when the waiver will be officially adopted. And there are already WTO member states that have opposed such a waiver of intellectual property rights as it may set a new precedent for the future. So there will be a hard negotiation now before any final decision is made,” he said.
Dr. Anant Bhan, a global health policy expert based in New Delhi, agreed with Gopakumar. Although he thinks the newfound U.S. support could open up doors for manufacturers in India and other middle-income countries to produce the vaccine at an affordable price, he feels it won’t have an immediate impact on India’s vaccination drive.
“The U.S. is taking an unprecedented stand, which of course is welcomed by everyone. But I’m not sure how long it will take,” Dr. Bhan said. “It could take weeks or months, we don’t know that yet.”