Impact of Covid Vaccines’ Possible IP Waiver In India

Just when Covid 2.0 rages in India with almost 4,000 people died in just 24 hours, scientists warn that Covid 3.0, and further waves are now ‘inevitable, reported Reuters on May 06, 2021. With hospitals running short of beds and oxygen during the onslaught of Covid 2.0, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted, ‘India accounted for nearly half the coronavirus cases reported worldwide last week, and a quarter of the deaths.’

The report revealed some more heartrending details: ‘Many people have died in ambulances and car parks waiting for a bed or oxygen, while morgues and crematoriums struggle to deal with a seemingly unstoppable flow of bodies.’

No visible overall improvements with ‘here and now decisions’ or maybe the lack of it, of the National Covid Management Team, is perceptible, just yet. It’s also a matter of further concern that unlike what happened during Covid 1.0, the second wave of the virus, reportedly, ‘started hitting even young adults hard – leaving countless children to fend for themselves.’

Ironically, alongside a rapid surge in infections, India witnesses a sharp decline in Covid vaccination numbers though more people are eligible. The key reasons being supply chain related problems, despite India being one of the largest vaccine producers, globally. In my last article  published in this blog, I broached on finding a possible exit to this covid 2.0 maze in India. However, this article will explore some unprecedented developments of the last week in this area. To give a perspective, let me start by exploring whether the people responsible for Covid Governance in India, grossly misjudged the situation, claiming the ‘endgame’ of Covid-19, too soon.

‘India announced its triumph over Covid-19 early’:

A third Covid-19 wave is inevitable, but the timing could not be predicted, said India’s principal scientific advisor on May 05, 2021. Intriguingly, less than two months back, the national Government announced its triumph over Covid-19. On March 08, 2021, as Covid vaccination process for senior citizens and people above 45 years with comorbidities had just commenced, the Union Health Minister claimed, ‘India is in the endgame of the novel coronavirus pandemic.’ Just about a couple of months later, it sounded akin to a note of hubris for many, which prevailed, by and large, across the nation.

Acknowledging the same, on May 04, 2021, even Uday Kotak, MD&CEO Kotak Mahindra Bank and President CII commented, ‘India announced triumph over Covid-19 early’. He further urged: “We have to do whatever it takes to save lives first, even as we battle for livelihoods. And if our healthcare capacity is currently going through its challenges, we must be ready to curtail non-essential economic activities.” The latest editorial from ‘The Lancet’ also highlighted the same.

India’s Covid 2.0 – “A self-inflicted national catastrophe” – The Lancet 

Yes. The editorial of the latest – May 08, 2021 issue of The Lancet, also reiterated so. It emphasized, ignoring warnings about the risks of super spreader events, the government allowed congregations of millions of people from across India in religious festivals, along with huge political rallies with utter disregard to Covid appropriate behavior. ‘The message that COVID-19 was essentially over also slowed the start of India’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which has vaccinated less than 2% of the population.’ India’s national vaccination plan soon fell apart with the government abruptly expanded vaccination to all 18 years, draining supplies, ‘and creating mass confusion and a market for vaccine doses in which states and hospital systems competed.’

The IHME estimates a staggering 1 million deaths from COVID-19 in India by Aug 01, 2021. ‘If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s Government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe. India squandered its early successes in controlling COVID-19. Until April, the government’s COVID-19 task force had not met in months,’ The Lancet editorial revealed.

Besides, India also misjudged the complexities involved in procurement, distribution and for speedy inoculation of affordable Covid vaccines, at least, to its entire adult population. But, before delving into that area, let me highlight an interesting mismatch.

India’s vaccine shortage when Pfizer logs a record vaccine turnover during pandemic:

Two contrasting scenario surfaces – as the world is reeling under unprecedented disruptions caused by successive waves of Covid-19. Witnessing India’s unparalleled healthcare tragedy in Covid 2.0, the W.H.O director general said: “The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking.” Outlining the reason for the same a separate report commented: A ‘complete collapse’ of preventive health: How India’s 2nd COVID wave exploded.

Concomitantly, one reads news items, which bring out, ‘Pfizer eyes $26B in COVID-19 vaccine sales for the year, with $3.5B already in the bag.’ Notably, most vaccine companies received huge public funding much before Covid vaccines were rolled out. For example, ‘The New York Times’ article of July 22, 2020 came with a headline: ‘Pfizer Gets $1.95 Billion to Produce Coronavirus Vaccine by Year’s End.’

The Scientific American also reported on November 18, 2020, ‘For Billion-Dollar COVID Vaccines, Basic Government-Funded Science Laid the Groundwork.’ It added: ‘Much of the pioneering work on mRNA vaccines was done with government money, though drugmakers could walk away with big profits.’ That’s exactly, I reckon, is the reality today.

Similarly, Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine generated $1.73 billion in revenue during the first quarter, as compared to $3.5 billion of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine in the same quarter. Moderna now predicts its vaccine will generate $19.2 billion by year’s end. Interestingly, through its COVID-19 vaccine partnership with the U.S. government, Moderna also received nearly $1 billion in research aid. The Company is now joining a list of other vaccine players to take a supply order from the federal government.

By the same token, Serum Institute of India (SII) – the contract manufacturer of Covishield, developed and owned by Oxford University and AstraZeneca has also received initial advance funding from the governments, prior to its manufacturing.

Was India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ a pragmatic step?

Today, India is one such country facing the brunt of Covid vaccine shortage alongside arriving at an affordable price per dose of the same – a part of which is due to ‘unrealistic’ planning, as many experts believe.

For example, on January 20, the Indian government launched Vaccine Maitri – an ambitious program to export the two Indian-made shots – Covishield and Covaxin – to the world. On that exact date, India counted 14,112 fresh cases of Covid-19. Going by a report of May 01, 2021: ‘According to the government’s own submission before the Parliament, more shots were sent out of the country than administered to Indians as of mid-March.’ Many, therefore, wonder, whether this was a pragmatic decision that helped save lives of Indians during Covid pandemic.

An unprecedented development on vaccine IP waiver:

This is regarding IP waivers for Covid vaccines. In my last article, I wrote about it, stating, on October 02, 2021, India and South Africa had proposed at the WTO about an IP waiver for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines to resolve the issues of access and affordability for these products. It was also widely reported: ‘Richer members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked a push by over 80 developing countries to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations.’

However, on May 05, 2021, a statement of the U.S. Trade Representative said, ‘as the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic call for extraordinary measures, in its service of ending this pandemic the US also supports the IP waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, although the US administration supports IP protections generally. As expected, Big Pharma lobby groups, including PhRMA, reportedly, have strongly criticized the move.

Let me hasten to add, there is, at least, one exception in this area. Months ago, on October 8, 2020, Moderna said, ‘it won’t enforce its vaccine patents against other companies during the pandemic.’ Without specifying any names, the Company revealed, ‘other Covid-19 vaccines in development might already be using Moderna-patented technology.

The WTO process is expected to begin now, but how long will it take?

As the Reuters report dated May 06, 2021 indicated – with the U.S. backing a proposed waiver of Covid-19 vaccine IP rights, the next stop is for the World Trade Organization to hammer out a deal – a process that could take months. “At a minimum, it’s going to be a month or two,” said a former Trump White House trade official who previously worked at the U.S. trade mission to the WTO in Geneva. The waiver, if happens, could also be significantly narrower in scope and shorter in duration than the one initially proposed by India and South Africa.

The relevance of IP waiver:

Currently, only drug companies which own patents or their authorized manufacturers like SII can produce Covid vaccines. A global decision on patent waiver may encourage the patentees to share the formula and manufacturing technology, instead of reverse engineering, as is done for off-patent small molecules and some biotech drugs.  All companies with requisite resources may legally manufacture Covid vaccines, in that situation, leading to cheaper, and significantly more quantity of generic versions of Covid vaccines. This may help overcoming vaccine shortages, making the vaccines affordable, as well.

Some counter arguments and response:

As I wrote in my last article, the following three critical questions may arise in that scenario:

  • Will IP waiver help solve the immediate issues of vaccine shortages?
  • Can Covid vaccines be reverse engineered by domestic pharma industry without inventors sharing ‘Know-How’?
  • If yes, how long can it take?

The answer to the first question is – it may not help resolve the immediate crisis. But, for a medium to long term solution, there will be an emphatic yes, as Covid-19 fight is expected to be a long-haul one, as experts caution about subsequent waves of rapidly mutating new Coronavirus.

Moreover, Pfizer – BioNTech vaccine took less than a year from ‘mind to market,’ with support from all concerned. This is evident from Pfizer’s Press Release for the launch of Covid vaccine in the United States last year, on December 11, 2020. Thus, an efficient reverse engineering may also take that much time to respond to medium and long-term issues with Covid vaccines, especially in India.

Subsequent Covid-19 waves could be triggered by unpredictable compliance to Covid appropriate behavior of people. W.H.O has also warned: “When personal protective measures are being relaxed, when there are mass gatherings, when there are more contagious variants and the vaccination coverage is still low this can create a perfect storm in any country,”

Conclusion:

‘The pandemic is not a competition between companies and will not end without more-equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines,’ wrote Nature on March 30, 2021. It suggested: ‘It’s time to consider a patent reprieve for COVID vaccines.’

The world needs around 11 billion doses of Coronavirus vaccines to immunize 70% of the global population – assuming two doses per person. Interestingly, around 6 billion doses are meant for high- and upper-middle-income countries, against advance orders. Poorer nations, accounting for 80% of the global population, so far, have access to less than one-third of the available vaccines. ‘Unless manufacturing and supply can be distributed more evenly, researchers forecast that it will be at least another two years before a significant proportion of people in the lowest-income countries are vaccinated’, the paper concluded.

In this situation, I reckon, a temporary IP waiver would help in accelerating the end of the pandemic. It may not help immediately, but certainly in the foreseeable future, as discussed above. It may also call for an efficient and well thought out ‘Hub and Spoke’ distribution model. Simultaneously, of course, similar systems for raw and ancillary materials for vaccine production need to put in place to avoid intermittent shortages. 

As reported on May 08, 2021, India registered a record 4,187 Covid death with 4.01 Lakh new cases, in 24 hours. Capturing the depth of the Indian crisis, ‘India Today’ is coming out with a cover page article in its May 17 issue, with the headline – ‘Covid 2.0 – The Failed State.’ Another article terms India as the ‘Flailing state in Covid storm.’

As I reasoned above, if this unprecedented step of IP waiver for Covid vaccines is finally taken by the WTO, it will significantly help India – along with the world – may not be immediately, but certainly in the foreseeable future. Only adverse impact that the decision could possibly make, is curbing Big Pharma’s unprecedented profit on Covid vaccines, and that too, during a deadly global pandemic.

By: Tapan J. Ray     

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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