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Lifting IP rights for Covid vaccines – good or bad?

Concerns are raised about geopolitical interests, in addition to the unequal distribution of vaccine doses.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
The US has backed the proposal for a waiver of protections for Covid-19 vaccines with the goal of ending the pandemic, although concerns remain over the possible ramifications of such a move.
The US has backed the proposal for a waiver of protections for Covid-19 vaccines with the goal of ending the pandemic, although concerns remain over the possible ramifications of such a move.

An economist has questioned the proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines, mooted by India and several other countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO), saying there may be more to the move than the arguments by proponents that this would allow poorer nations access to much needed doses in the fight against the highly contagious virus.

Calls for a temporary removal of IP protections on Covid-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property, have been led by India, joined by countries including South Africa and 57 other WTO members.

Those who support the move say it would make vaccines and medicines more accessible but Carmelo Ferlito, CEO of the Center for Market Education, said there appeared to be geopolitical interests involved.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he said there are two main blocs wrangling over the issue with the US, China and India in support of a waiver and Britain and the EU against it.

“The main beneficiaries of the waiver would be China and India,” he said.

Adding that the push by India and South Africa seemed “disingenuous”, he theorised that it could be aimed not at curbing the pandemic but at allowing domestic companies to profit off the IP of others.

“President Biden seems to be using the IP waiver more as a geopolitical tool than a humanitarian approach,” he said, referring to the US’ move early this month to support a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines.

He also dismissed the argument that IP rights are a barrier to global vaccination efforts.

“It’s not the IP rights that are limiting access to vaccines around the world. Rather, it is mainly the lack of production sites, distribution plans, logistics and rule of law, not to mention bureaucracy and corruption,” he said.

He added that the export ban by the US and British governments was also compounding the problem.

US trade representative Katherine Tai said on May 6 that while IP 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.

China has also backed the proposal for the waiver, with a spokesman for its commerce ministry saying: “China will work with all parties to actively participate in consultations and jointly promote a balanced and effective solution.”

The UK and EU have been more reserved but say that they are ready to discuss the matter.

In Malaysia, opposition MP Charles Santiago on Saturday urged Putrajaya to support the move, saying the monopoly of Covid-19 vaccine production by big pharmaceutical companies and rich countries had resulted in “pitting global citizens and countries against each other”.

“This waiver would allow governments, including Malaysia, to authorise the production of patented vaccines without the consent of pharmaceutical companies holding the patent,” he said in a Facebook post.

“We can also bypass the monopoly of companies holding IP rights and produce generic vaccines and other technologies that can fight Covid-19.

“On the ground, this would mean our vaccination schedules can run smoothly.”

Dr M Subramaniam, president of the Malaysian Medical Association, said the World Health Organization had also voiced its support for a waiver of IP protections.

“Vaccine distribution should be equitable for both rich and poor countries,” he told MalaysiaNow. “No country should be hoarding vaccines just because it has money.”

He said some countries had moved on to vaccinating children and teenagers while others were still struggling to immunise their most vulnerable groups.

“This is not acceptable.”

But Carmelo said a waiver could unleash a flood of counterfeit and substandard vaccines, possibly contributing to an increase in vaccine hesitancy.

He said Malaysia’s vaccination programme was not rolling out as quickly as it could, and that continuing to support IP protections was the best way to keep things moving.

“Eventually, Malaysia should work towards getting manufacturing licences if the country is ready to do so,” he added.

Geostrategist Azmi Hassan said vaccine distribution would be more efficient if all parties agreed to it, adding that Malaysia would not be at a loss as it does not produce its own vaccines.

“One of the reasons why vaccine production is stunted is because of the limited capacity of the manufacturers,” he said.

He also disagreed that there was a relation between the issue of IP protections and counterfeit products.

“Counterfeit vaccines already exist because those who make them do not care about IP protections,” he said.

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