We need louder calls for patent waivers of Covid-19 vaccines
Bangladesh, like most other developing countries, is now facing the daunting task of procuring Covid-19 vaccines, as the world witnesses unprecedented inequities in vaccine access. It is true that Bangladesh is one of the few nations that succeeded in securing 30 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, allowing us to get an early start in the nationwide inoculation programme. But, the Indian producer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the Serum Institute (SI), now says they will not be able to export Covid-19 vaccines before June-July. As a result, Nazmul Hassan Papon, managing director of Beximco, the Bangladeshi supplier of the vaccines from SI, says as Bangladesh has paid in advance for the vaccines, the SI has no right to halt the supply. He has now turned to the government and seeks diplomatic intervention. But, it is unlikely that India, amidst its worst public health crisis due to a record surge in Covid-19 transmission and deaths, would be easing the ban on vaccine exports anytime soon.
Supply of vaccines has become a highly sensitive political issue. It has already caused tensions among neighbours in the European and American continents. In January, the European Union and the United Kingdom had a brief diplomatic spat over failure of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca to fulfil its promised supply. Its dispute with AstraZeneca has not been resolved yet and only yesterday, the European Commission started legal proceedings against the company, even though both Germany and France argued that such a legal action amidst a pandemic may cause distraction and affect the company's production and supply chains.
Similar issues have caused discomfort in relations between the United States and its neighbours, including Canada and Mexico. The richer nations' race for securing excess doses and varieties of vaccines as insurance, in the case of unseen problems arising from the preferred ones, has aggravated this inequity in global supply. Unfortunately, warnings by experts about an impending public health disaster could not sway world leaders. Calls for sharing knowledge, technology and resources for maximising productions of vaccine were not heeded.
In the absence of a global agreement on a structured system, there is no limit set for countries on how much one can buy in relation to the actual requirement. It allowed some richer countries to secure supplies ranging three to nine times over their needs. As a result, more than half of the available doses have been purchased by richer nations for their citizens, who account for only 14 percent of the global population, according to the People's Vaccine Alliance. There is no question that governments have a responsibility to their own people, but can excessive buying or hoarding be justified?
Indemnity demanded by manufacturers from governments against liabilities arising out of any adverse effect makes handing over excess vaccines to third countries difficult. An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism unveiled in February that "Pfizer required some Latin American governments to put up sovereign assets—which could include federal bank reserves, embassy buildings or military bases—as a guarantee against indemnifying the cost of future legal cases". On April 14, the South African health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, voiced frustrations about "difficult and sometimes unreasonable" terms his country's government had been presented with during contract negotiations with vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer.
In May 2020, about a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for voluntarily sharing knowledge, intellectual property and data necessary for tackling Covid-19. Other global campaign groups like Global Justice sought clear commitments from big pharmaceutical companies for open licensing of Covid-19 research and technology, as well as patent-free vaccines. More voices have now joined in demanding a waiver of the intellectual property rules. On April 14, 2021, more than 170 former heads of state/government and Nobel laureates, including former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown, former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of France François Hollande and Nobel Laureates Muhammad Yunus and Professor Joseph Stiglitz, called on US President Biden to support a waiver of intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines and pursue a people's vaccine to end the pandemic. The New York Times on April 24 in an editorial urged wealthy nations to stop hoarding vaccines, suspend patents, share technology and resources, build more capacity and invest in alternatives.
The new chief of the WTO, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, however, has come up with a third option. Instead of waiving the patent rights, she has suggested voluntary licensing. She also said that it was "not acceptable" to leave poorer countries at the "end of the queue" for vaccines. Pointing to AstraZeneca's deal to transfer its know-how to a mass vaccine manufacturer in India, she said "There is some capacity in developing countries unused now. Let's have the same kind of arrangement that AstraZeneca has with the Serum Institute of India." Although, it has to be noted that the campaigners claim that there are loopholes in AstraZeneca's deal, as it lacks a clear commitment that the vaccine will be free from pharmaceutical monopolies.
Moreover, AstraZeneca and its licensee Serum Institute (SI) have both failed to keep supply commitments, exposing the limitations of such commercial arrangements. Despite SI having the highest vaccine production capacity in the world, it is no match for the huge demand of the region. Besides, it does not enjoy any exemption from the export control regime of India, which leaves countries like Bangladesh exposed to increased vulnerability.
In this backdrop, any offer for supplying any vaccine approved by WHO must be welcomed in Bangladesh. Any opportunity for manufacturing or partnership in relation to Covid-19 vaccines should also be considered with utmost sincerity and urgency. Covid-19 is not going to be eliminated anytime soon and in the absence of a cure, there is no other alternative. We need to raise our voices in support of patent waivers to utilise and develop further our own capacity in producing the Covid-19 vaccine.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.