US vaccine waiver decision welcomed, but more steps needed, experts warn
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Johannesburg - The decision by the US to support a proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections (IP) on Covid-19 vaccines has been welcomed, but stakeholders say much still hangs in the balance.
The US said on Wednesday that President Joe Biden’s administration would back a proposal tabled at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines.
The US government said that while it believed strongly in intellectual property protection, the weight of the pandemic warranted support for the waiver.
The proposal was tabled by South Africa and India last October and had been deadlocked at the WTO because of a lack of support from several western countries, including the US under former president Donald Trump’s administration.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has long called on western countries to step up support for wider vaccine access, welcomed the US’s move as a game changer.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, also welcomed the announcement and said it was part of a string of issues that were needed to ensure vaccine supply was increased.
“It is a very important part of the solution. There are various other things that are needed as well in order to make this a real opportunity to expand quickly and diversify the supply for the vaccines,“ Moeti said on Thursday during a WHO briefing.
Moeti also cautioned that there was much more that needed to be ironed out to make the waiver possible, including capacity.
South Africa is among a handful of African countries with the capacity to manufacture vaccines.
The call for a waiver has been greeted with calls for caution, especially from pharmaceutical companies and innovators who believe the move could stifle innovation.
UCT Professor Kelly Chibale, a patent holder, said the issue of a waiver on IP was complex. He said that many countries could not manufacture and distribute the vaccines, which would make the offer redundant.
"Even if IP was waived, I can guarantee you that it will mean almost nothing. Even if they say ’okay now you can manufacture’, how are we going to do it? We don’t have the facilities to do this at scale, we don’t have the expertise, we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the infrastructure,“ said Chibale.
The Health Justice Initiative (HJI), a health advocacy group, welcomed the move by the US. The NGO has been a strong supporter of the waiver and has called on other countries such as the UK, Canada and the EU to follow suit.
Fatima Hassan, a director at HJI, disagreed that the waiver would stifle innovation and that the manufacturing capacity was unavailable.
"There are many countries with companies who have indicated their willingness to ramp up the technology if they are given the go-ahead. And if they know that, they will not be sued.
"There have been six companies identified in Africa that said they can scale up manufacturing (of vaccines). The way the waiver is designed, you do not need to have manufacturing capacity in every country – even if there are 20 or 30 they are then able to import and export – the waiver would assist with that," Hassan said.