We can't help but divide ourselves into “us” and “them”. There is a natural tendency towards groupism. But this time, whether we like it or not, we are in it together. As is obvious by now, Covid-19 knows no boundaries. In our interconnected world, it is impossible to contain it within borders. No one country can overcome this alone. Our only hope is to fight it together.
One of the most important tools to help us battle the elusive virus is vaccines. The past year we have seen scientists, pharma companies and governments across the world collaborate and fast track development, to deploy the vaccines quickly and effectively against the disease. Although financial help from the government is common at the early stages of research, in this case, the huge sense of urgency because of the pandemic, led to an enormous quantity of funds being allocated towards this. Massive infrastructure was set up, and government support enabled multiple trials for a speedy roll out. Millions have since been inoculated. But with time, the increasing inequity between nations is beginning to show.
Less than 1 per cent of the people in low-income countries have been vaccinated, and on the other hand rich countries like the US are hoarding excessive supplies. In the meantime, the virus continues to mutate. We are seeing the full force of the deadly second wave in India. Half-hearted travel bans and advisories won’t hold it back. The mutated version will continue its journey across the world. Which is why it is in everyone’s interest that everyone is vaccinated.
A simple math tells us that 7 billion people, will need 14 billion jabs. We are nowhere close to that number. At this pace it would take years to produce that many shots. And the longer it takes, the virus will keep changing, taking unknown forms, leaving us a step behind. Vaccines need to be readily available and affordable. This is where it gets messy. Intellectual property rights come into play.
The trend of granting patents began in Europe around the fourteenth century, and since then it has grown into a complicated gigantic mesh of multilateral agreements and laws. It is primarily an economic arrangement that rewards the innovator, and encourages research and development in new areas in the hope of future profits. Pharma companies insist on collecting their due to recover their cost, and continue to innovate. This has been the system so far, but is it time to rethink it?
These are exceptional times. There is no doubt that things have changed dramatically over the past year. The “new normal” is how we are describing it. Perhaps there will also be a new way of looking at old systems.
I am aware that there is absolutely nothing new in the debate around IPR and life-saving medication. The issue has been contentious for years, and it continues to be a relevant, especially now, when tragedy is unfolding all around us. Vaccine shortages are slowing down inoculations, and a sharp rise in infections continues to inflict suffering and death. There just aren’t enough shots for everybody.
If the precious recipe for the vaccines is shared, other bio-tech firms can begin to also produce it. Competition will make it cheaper, and readily available. India and South Africa are pushing the WTO to suspend IPR related to Covid-19 for a limited time. There is a global advocacy campaign demanding the same. The US has decided to support the move and the EU is non-committal so far. But will waiving the laws be enough.
Influential voices and pharma companies have raised doubts on many fronts. The first being concerns on the quality of manufacturing. But given the copious amount of generic drugs being already produced, vetted and consumed for years, the issue of quality can perhaps be handled through a proper mechanism of approval and control. We need to probe if the demand for a waiver is just a distraction. Is the real issue, that of supply chain bottlenecks and distribution and administration vaccines. Can production and logistics be streamlined? Would a waiver undermine long-term vaccine development. In which case can the government pitch in to strengthen and assist medical R&D? Is capacity a constraint with existing pharma companies or is IP a constraint at present? Can pharma companies be compensated through royalties or license fee for sharing of technology? Can there be a “pooling” mechanism of resources, as recently suggested by Costa Rica to facilitate access. These are just some of the issues that are being discussed.
I doubt if there can be a clear one-sided answer to what is essentially a very complex question. When humongous money is at stake, and years of fractious negotiations have solidified multi-lateral trade agreements, and complicated patents laws have been codified - it will not be simple to make changes. But given the rare circumstances of the present, we cannot continue with what was acceptable in the past.
Every time there is a public health crisis, there will be a demand for the removal of IPR, as was done for HIV many years ago, and it will be the case in the future too. IPR reform is usually low priority for national governments and international organisations. But right now, it is crucial to handling the current situation. This is an opportunity for policy makers and the industry to go in for a systemic re-evaluation of the laws and access mechanisms.
When all stakeholders come onboard, there will be a way. But that is possible only when everyone acknowledges that we are all on the same side.
(Ekta Kumar writes on current affairs, human rights and social trends. She is an MBA from IIM Calcutta and a chartered accountant. Views expressed are personal.)