WHO Adviser Expresses Pessimism About Success of Planned COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver

COVID-19 vaccine
COVID-19 vaccine

Plans to issue a patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines as a means to boost global production, which are set to be assessed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), are unlikely to come to fruition given the slow pace of progress and the danger that such a decision could remove the incentive for pharmaceutical firms to further develop vaccines, Robert Steffen, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of Zurich, told Sputnik.

South Africa and India launched the proposal for a temporary Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver late last year, arguing that this would help increase vaccine production, particularly in lower-income countries. The proposal has received the support of World Health Organization (WHO) leaders.

“I’m not very optimistic on that issue, not only because the pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland, and anywhere else, doesn’t like it, but also for the good reason that the World Trade Organization is scheduling that discussion only for the end of this year,” Steffen, a frequent WHO adviser, said on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).

The European Commission on Friday issued a statement saying that it was “not convinced” that a TRIPS waiver would ensure the widespread and timely delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, and Steffen said that suspending patent protections could disincentivize pharmaceutical firms from further developing their current vaccines.

“And then, of course, we also need to listen to the whispers of the pharmaceutical industry, which tell us that if they can’t patent a new vaccine, they do not have any incentive to develop it, and if such regulation would be paralyzing the production and the development of new vaccines, that would be, of course, very bad,” Steffen said.

Nevertheless, the University of Zurich epidemiologist said that a solution needed to be found to ensure equitable access to vaccines, especially as lower-income countries have received just 0.2% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to WHO data.

“The situation is completely unsatisfactory. Just in a meeting one hour ago, [on Friday] Dr. Tedros, the director-general of the World Health Organization, again commented on the tragedy that in the low-income countries, very often there is less than 1%, or at most 4-5%, of the population who are vaccinated, as compared to more than 40% in industrialized countries,” Steffen commented.

Speaking on Monday, the WHO’s director-general expressed hope that several new manufacturing sites in Africa would be ready to begin producing COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the year.

Rene Awambeng, the head of client relations at the African Export-Import Bank, told Sputnik at SPIEF that the pan-African financial institution was working to support Senegal’s Institute Pasteur to bolster the production of vaccines against COVID-19, as well as vaccines against other diseases, on the African continent.

This year’s edition of SPIEF was held from June 2-5 in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Rossiya Segodnya was an official media partner of the event.

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