It was a “seismic decision” by Joe Biden, the US president, say campaigners who have fought for the demolition of patent protection on vaccines and drugs for decades. The US administration has amazed supporters and critics alike by throwing its considerable weight behind the pleas of South Africa, India and about 100 developing countries at the World Trade Organization to overturn patents on Covid vaccines in the interests of getting more of them, more cheaply and faster, to huge populations in need.
Patents preserve the profits of the multinational companies that make drugs and vaccines. They make it illegal for up to 20 years for manufacturers of generic medicines to turn out cheap copycat versions. In this pandemic where, as the World Health Organization says, no one is safe until everyone is safe, there is a powerful moral case for ditching them.
But the US has always been home to much of big pharma and a diehard protector of patents, which the industry argues are vital to allow them to recoup the huge and risky investment they make in research and development.
The pressure is now on the UK and Europe, which are also bastions of the pharmaceutical industry. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Thursday the bloc was “ready to discuss” the US-backed proposal, though a German government spokesman said the plan would create “severe complications” for vaccine production.
The talk behind closed doors and on protected phone lines between company bosses and politicians is only to be imagined. Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the most respected voices in this debate because it comes from doctors who risk their lives on the ground in pandemics and emergencies, said: “Countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver, such as European Union countries, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, and Brazil must now take action, too, and decide to put people’s health before pharmaceutical profits and waive IP on all Covid-19 medical tools, including vaccines.”
That is notable on two counts. The heat is now on the European countries. And vaccines are not the only issue. [Continue reading…]