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Renewed calls for PM to back waiver on Covid-19 patents following US move

NGOs and advocacy groups say the local pharmaceutical industry can help but need the freedom to operate that a WTO waiver could speed up.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
A health worker prepares to adminster a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 at the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
A health worker prepares to adminster a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 at the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

NGOs and advocacy groups today urged the government to support the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for vaccines and products needed in the fight against Covid-19, citing rising numbers of infections and the strain on healthcare facilities across the country.

In a letter submitted to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the heads of related ministries, they said a waiver of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agreement on IP rights, known as a TRIPS waiver, would allow more manufacturers including those in developing countries to ramp up production of vaccines and the medication needed to treat Covid-19, as well as medical products such as ventilators and diagnostics equipment.

“While the government has secured vaccines for Malaysia, the actual delivery is totally dependent on a small number of suppliers, and there is no guarantee that we will get all we need,” they said, giving the example of India where exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been suspended due to rising domestic demand.

The WTO has for months been facing calls to temporarily remove the IP protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

This has been met with resistance from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which say the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn that the move could hamper innovation.

The groups, which include the Consumers Association of Penang, Amnesty International, Sahabat Alam Malaysia and the Malaysian AIDS Council, said WTO discussions had stalled since October last year as “blocking countries and the pharmaceutical industry behind them have put profits and self-interest above lives of the rest of the world”.

“The result is vaccine production that is a monopoly of a few companies holding patents and trade secrets over technology know-how, and vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations, ending up with more than they need while many poor countries can barely vaccinate their health frontliners.”

They welcomed the US’ recent move to support the global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, adding that they had been urging the government to do so since November last year.

“The waiver that the WTO members have to adopt is not just about vaccines. It is also about medicines for treating Covid-19, diagnostics, ventilator valves, and a range of needed medical products that have patents, trade secrets and other IP protection,” they said.

“The US supports waiver of patent and other intellectual property for vaccines which is a first step, but it is not enough.”

Adding that Malaysia is on a “worrying upward trend” in terms of infections and virus variants, they said every country including Malaysia must be prepared for the pandemic to continue for several years.

“Some existing medicines that are under clinical trials with potential for Covid-19 treatment are locked up in patents in Malaysia,” they said.

“Our local pharmaceutical industry can be part of the national health and security preparedness but they need the freedom to operate that a WTO waiver can help to speed up.”

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