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Covid-19 Vaccines and Patents

It was 27 January 2020 when India detected the first Covid-19 case in the country. Three days later, WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic. And since there was no effective medicine for the infection, the race for vaccine started.

Vaccine to the rescue

For the first time in history, a vaccine was made in a record time of just a few months. While this article is being penned down, there are 16 approved vaccines around the world and many more candidates in different stages of trials. With the dawn of the new year, India approved two vaccine candidates – AstraZeneca’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Cavaxin. The Covishield is adenovirus based vaccine that uses a modified Chimpanzee adenovirus shell containing DNA for Covid-19 protein. On the other hand, Covaxin uses inactivated virus in which a virus is killed and its disease producing capacity is lost but it still induces an immune response in the body.

India started vaccinating its healthcare workers and frontline workers like police, sanitation workers, etc. on 16 Jan 2021. On 1 March, vaccination drive was extended to people of age 60+ and those between 45 to 60 with comorbidities. On April 1, the drive included all 45+ and from 1 May amidst shortage of vaccine doses, the government approved to start vaccination for 18+ people. When vaccination was started in January, people were hesitant to get vaccinated. But the second wave of Covid-19 and its devastating effects appeared to have changed the mind of people and now more and more people started turning to the vaccination centres.

As vaccine shortage is quite evident from the fact that few states have closed many of their vaccination centres and their effort to get doses by floating tenders bear no fruit. But as India has stopped supplying to poor African nations, its neighbors, and backtracking from its commitment with the WHO’s COVAX facility, more vaccine doses are now reaching the centres. But this is not enough, the production capacity of both Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech needs to be increased significantly to meet the domestic targets. Although the new vaccine Sputnik-V is now available in the market, the target to be achieved is so big and we are so behind in the race that more efforts are needed.

Patents and the Divided World

In 1990s, WTO implemented a global intellectual property regime called the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement or TRIPS. Since 1970 when Patents Act came into force, India followed what is known as ‘Process Patent’. In this, the same product can be made by altering the manufacturing process. This method has helped poor African Nations to get cheap medicines produced by the Indian Pharmaceutical companies. But since 2005 when India brought Patents Amendment Act, it has adopted the strategy of ‘Product Patent’ which has made the advantages of ‘Process Patent’ end.

The UN’s Medicines Patent Pool (that keeps voluntary licenses medicines) and WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool are important tools to promote voluntary licensing of Covid-19 vaccines but are completely ignored by the vaccine manufacturers till now. There are two licensing scenarios- Voluntary Licensing and Compulsory Licensing. In Voluntary licensing, the manufacturer of a medicine voluntarily gives away licenses to other manufactures with the transfer of technology. Gilead did the same when it realized that it won’t be able to earn profit from poor countries, so by securing a marginal royalty, it gave away voluntary licenses but restricted its use to poor nations only. Compulsory licensing is when a government orders to manufacture a medicine without the approval of the Patent holder. This is done in case of a health emergency. The Doha Declaration has this enshrined and lists Malaria, AIDS, and Tuberculosis as health emergencies. No doubt that Covid-19 can easily make it to this list. But the Compulsory Licensing does not come with the transfer of technology and many times legal battle follows.

As India and South Africa have requested the WTO to suspend Intellectual Property rights related to Covid-19, the world is now divided on the idea. Although the US has hinted its support, it is unlikely that it is happening anytime soon. Rich countries of the west are against the idea including the so-called messiah of the world healthcare Bill Gates. The manufacturers who want to fill their pockets by maximizing profits should instead give away voluntary licenses so that poor countries can mass-produce vaccines and achieve vaccination targets as soon as possible. Like Gilead, they should also realize that in the present economic scenario, there is no way they can earn a handsome profit from the poor nations. Their stand is that the poor nations lack the know-how and technology to mass-produce the vaccine although many of them are already producing medicines in these poor nations to cut production costs.

Conclusion

In these testing times, we should stand together and united to face and win over this deadly disease. We should try to maximize vaccination so that the spread and the related virus mutation stops. As the virus mutates, we can do nothing else but update our vaccines. So it is crucial to make use of methods like ‘voluntary licensing’ to inoculate more and more people so that the world economy comes back on track.

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