London -Britain is among a host of countries resisting calls led by US President Joe Biden and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines to be waived to boost jab rates in poorer countries.
Those backing the waiver including Harry and Meghan say it would allow poorer countries to produce the jabs for themselves – but many countries are resisting it amid concerns it would hit competition and the overall fight against the pandemic.
The UK has been in closed-door talks at the World Trade Organization in recent months along with the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Singapore, the European Union and the US, who all opposed the idea.
But President Joe Biden reversed course on Wednesday and called for a waiver – allowing other firms to copy and produce the vaccine without being sued – a move backed by humanitarian groups worried about vaccines being distributed so far primarily to the wealthy countries that made them.
UK ministers are keen to stay out of the patents row until the shape of any plan becomes clearer. But one UK government source stressed that it was not an issue for AZ.
‘The AZ jab, which the UK government has funded with Oxford, is being produced at cost by AZ. That is a vaccine which they will not be making profits on.’
Some freemarket-supporting MPs have also questioned whether the waiver would be fair on firms that have ploughed billions into research and development (R&D).
Senior Tory Marcus Fysh said that introducing a vaccine waiver on commercially manufactured drugs ‘opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions about the Government’s rights to take patents (held by) private businesses off them if it suits them.’
‘It’s a bad idea, because companies put a huge amount of effort and capital into developing new drugs and treatments of one kind or another and they need to get a return on it,’ he told MailOnline.
‘You cannot look at each one in isolation and say ”well that’s a massive return (on investment)” because they also spend a lot of money on R&D and development that goes nowhere. So it has to look at it overall.’
He added that it would be far better for more money and expertise to be put into forms of vaccinations that do not require injections or cold storage, to speed up the drive in developing countries with warmer climates.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have called on Covid vaccine manufacturers to act with ‘responsibility and leadership’ and increase their allocation of doses distributed to poorer parts of the world.
Harry and Meghan have written an open letter to the chief executives of pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca urging them to redouble their support for the UN-sponsored Covax programme.
The couple have called on all firms to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights applied to Covid vaccines, and for a ‘global public-private collaboration’ so production methods for the jabs can be shared.
The Sussexes’ intervention into the global debate about the vaccine rollout comes on the second birthday of their son Archie, and separately they have asked those wanting to mark this to donate funds which will support Covax.
At the weekend Harry appeared with a host of famous names from the worlds of music, film and politics at Global Citizen’s Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World, a charity performance in aid of the international Covid vaccination effort.
Speaking to an animated crowd of only fully-vaccinated guests, the duke asked for vaccines to be ‘distributed to everyone everywhere’, while also saluting frontline medical workers both at the concert and around the world.
Harry and Meghan, writing in their roles as Vax Live campaign chairs, said: ‘As of May 1, over 80 per cent of the 1.2 billion vaccine doses administered globally have occurred in high and upper-middle-income countries while the very lowest income countries have administered just 0.4 per cent.
‘As we are seeing in countries like India, the urgency to deliver doses now to save lives and stop the spread of Covid-19 is only increasing.
‘That’s why it is imperative that we ensure equitable vaccine access globally so that people are protected, economies can recover, and this global pandemic can be brought to an end everywhere.
‘Therefore we, the undersigned, stand with global citizens who want to see Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers act with extraordinary purpose, responsibility, and leadership in response to this equity crisis.’
Harry and Meghan’s letter is available for the public to sign on the website of the anti-poverty movement Global Citizen, and it calls on Moderna to ‘move up your delivery schedule with Covax and increase the promised 2021 volume to at least 100 million doses’.
It also urges Pfizer/BioNTech ‘to commit at least 100 million additional doses to Covax at a not-for-profit price and to deliver them as soon as possible this year’.
Covax was set up last year to try to establish fair access to the vaccines for poor and rich nations, but huge discrepancies have emerged.
It has been reported that more than 49million doses have been delivered through the system but more than £25billion is still needed to ensure most adults are immunised.
While the British Government is among the biggest donors to Covax, it has come under criticism for slashing the aid budget to 0. per cent of gross national income, despite the Conservative manifesto pledging to keep it at 0.7 per cent.
Marie Rumsby, UK country director for Global Citizen, said: ‘The work of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the Vax Live campaign demonstrates how urgent the need is to act now and ensure everyone, everywhere has access to Covid-19 vaccines.
‘We are grateful for their leadership in urging Covid-19 vaccine equity to help end the pandemic. We hope this will be the catalyst for many more commitments to come.’
Scientists are already looking at whether the vaccine can be administered using a pill, a nasal spray or sublingually, where the medication dissolves in the mouth.
‘I would like the government to accelerate that because that is where you can really make inroads, for example if you are trying to vaccinate several hundred million people in India, clearly being able to send out a pill or sublingual thing would be so much faster to get it done. Speed is very important in this,’ he added.
Vaccine makers like Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTEch have argued that patents have not been a limiting factor in supply. New technology and global limits on supplies are frequently cited as challenges, and both Moderna and Pfizer nevertheless have steadily boosted supply forecasts.
The Biden administration announcement made the US the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea which was floated by India and South Africa last October.
One day later, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who live in California, called on vaccine manufacturers to act with ‘responsibility and leadership’ and increase their allocation of doses distributed to poorer parts of the world.
Now, lawyers said today that US support for the waiver could be a tactic to convince pharmaceutical firms to back less drastic steps like sharing technology and expanding joint ventures to quickly boost global production.
Some 80 countries, mostly developing ones, have backed the proposal – but the decision is ultimately up to the 164-member WTO based in Geneva, and if just one country votes against a waiver, the proposal will fail.
The plans have led to split in global views – with India welcoming the idea, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling the US position ‘great news’ and Russian President Vladimir Putin saying he would back it.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office spoke out against it, saying intellectual property protection is ‘a source of innovation and must remain so in the future’ – the country focusing on how to increase production.
In Brazil, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said he fears that the country does not have the means to produce vaccines and that the lifting of patent protections could interfere with its efforts to buy doses from drug firms.
France’s Emmanuel Macron said he ‘completely favours’ the plan, but added that manufacturers in Africa are not now equipped to make vaccines, so donations of jabs from wealthier countries should be given priority instead.
University of East Anglia health economist Farasat Bokhari said of pharmaceutical firms: ‘They’re not doing it voluntarily. If the governments force them to do it, they would just be seen as having been dragged (along).’
And Lisa Ouellette, a legal professor at Stanford University in California, said: ‘I think the end result that most players are looking for here is not IP waiver in particular, it’s expanded global access to the vaccines.
‘If it is possible to increase the rate of scaling up production, this potentially would give the manufacturers a greater incentive to come to an agreement to make that happen.’
On Wednesday, Mr Biden supported a proposal to waive WTO intellectual property rules, which would allow poorer countries to produce vaccine for themselves.
So far Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed primarily to the wealthy countries that developed them, while the pandemic sweeps through poorer ones, such as India. The real goal is expanded vaccine distribution.
Vaccine makers such as Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTEch have argued that patents have not been a limiting factor in supply.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the urgency of moving fast now, telling NBC while visiting Ukraine: ‘On the current trajectory, if we don’t do more, if the entire world doesn’t do more, the world won’t be vaccinated until 2024.’
A Geneva-based trade official told the Associated Press that Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the US have opposed the idea in closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months.
The official added that 80 countries have supported the proposal – and that China and Russia, two other major Covid-19 vaccine makers, didn’t express a position but were open to further discussion.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the 27-nation bloc is ready to talk about the idea, but she remained non-committal and emphasised that the EU has been exporting vaccines widely.
EU leaders said the bloc may discuss the matter at a summit that starts today. The pharmaceutical industry has argued that a waiver will do more harm than good in the long run.
Easing patent protections would eat into their profits, potentially reducing the incentives that push companies to innovate and make the kind of huge leaps they did with the vaccines, which have been produced very quickly.
Intellectual property law expert Shyam Balganesh, a professor at Columbia University, said a waiver would only go so far because of bottlenecks in the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines.
Backers of the waiver say that expanded production by the big pharmaceutical companies and donations from richer countries to poor ones won’t be enough, and that there are manufacturers standing by that could make the vaccines if given the blueprints.
‘A waiver of patents for Covid-19 vaccines and medicines could change the game for Africa, unlocking millions more vaccine doses andsaving countless lives,’ World Health Organization Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tweeted.
Just over 20 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent, which has 1.3 billion people.
There is a precedent – for in 2003, WTO members agreed to waive patent rights and allow poorer countries to import generic treatments for the AIDS virus, malaria and tuberculosis.
‘We believe that when the history of this pandemic is written, history will remember the move by the U.S. government as doing the right thing at the right time,’ Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said.
Yesterday’s daily death toll in Britain from Covid was 13, bringing the UK total to 127,583.
Some 81 deaths have been reported in seven days – down 48 per cent.
A further 2,613 people have tested positive for Covid, taking the tally to 4,428,553. The weekly total is down 10 per cent. Cases have fallen across all regions except the North West.
Meanwhile, the Indian strain of Covid is likely to be declared a ‘variant of concern’ after more than 40 clusters were reportedly found across England