The United States has announced the support for waiving Intellectual Property (IP) protection for Covid-19 vaccines. The decision is a breakthrough in India and South Africa’s attempts to get World Trade Organisation (WTO) member countries to agree to such a waiver to fight the pandemic equitably.

Waiving Intellectual Property Protection for Covid-19 Vaccines

  • About:
    • The 1995 agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires ratifying countries to adopt a minimum standard of intellectual property rights to protect creators and promote innovation.
    • India and South Africa have proposed a waiver from the implementation and application of certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement (waiving IP rights like patents, copyright, and trademarks) for prevention, containment or treatment of Covid-19.
    • If the waiver is granted, WTO member countries will not be under an obligation, for a temporary period, to either grant or enforce patents and other IP-related rights to Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, and other treatments.
      • This will immunise the measures adopted by countries to vaccinate their populations from claims of illegality under WTO law.
  • Need to Waive Patents on Covid Vaccines:
    • Monopoly of Drug Companies: At present, only drug companies which own patents are authorised to manufacture Covid vaccines.
      • A lifting of patents will allow the formula to be shared with other companies.
    • Vaccine Cost: Once the formula is shared, any company which possesses the required technology and infrastructure can produce vaccines.
      • This will lead to cheaper and more generic versions of Covid vaccines and will be a big step in overcoming vaccine shortage.
    • Inequitable Distribution of Vaccines: This has opened up a glaring gap between developing and wealthier countries now.
  • The countries having surplus doses of vaccines have already vaccinated a considerable percentage of their population and are returning to normalcy.
  • Whereas, the poorer nations continue to face shortages, have overburdened healthcare systems and hundreds dying daily.
  • Against the Interests of the World: The longer Covid circulates in developing nations, there is a greater chance of more vaccine-resistant, deadly mutations of the virus emerging.
  • Significance for India:
    • Help in Increasing Production: The bulk of the vaccine doses produced in India are taken up by foreign countries which could pay more for the doses.
  • This move can help scale up production to meet demand besides making the vaccines more affordable for everyone.
  • Preparation for the Third Wave: Indian authorities have stated that the third wave of the pandemic is inevitable.
    • Once the number of cases and deaths plateau, addressing shortages and making more affordable vaccines readily accessible could be the best way to prepare for the surge once again.
  • Counter Arguments:
    • Vaccine Quality and Safety may get Compromised: Lifting of patents would be a compromise on control of safety and quality standards for vaccine manufacturing.
    • Disincentive Pharmaceutical Companies: Lifting of patents would be a huge deterrent to investing heavily on vaccine development during pandemics in the future.
    • Can Lead to Confusion: Eliminating those protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants.
      • It will create confusion that could potentially undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, and create a barrier to information sharing.

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