• Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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Patent waiver seen stalling vaccine production in Nigeria

Patent waiver seen stalling vaccine production in Nigeria

The refusal to waive intellectual property (IP) rights by pioneering manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines could pose a setback to the adoption of the mRNA vaccine production technology Nigeria and some other African countries are set to receive.

The technology transfer could fail to realise the goal of producing vaccines at scale locally, ditching the ultimate bid to attain self-sufficiency in non-producing countries including Nigeria, Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general, World Health Organisation (WHO), raised the concern on Wednesday at a high-level summit in Abuja.

According to Ghebreyesus, a global manufacturing training hub has been established to provide countries within the mRNA technology hub with a broader workforce training to turn knowledge of the technology into large-scale manufacturing of vaccine doses and other products.

But it might fail if manufacturers continue to reject the proposal for a temporary release of their patent, despite provisions for such under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) between all member nations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“The flexibility of the TRIPS agreement are there to be used during emergencies. If not now, then when? We need to throw out all these stuff to achieve 70 percent vaccine coverage target by the middle of this year as well as the minimum target for testing treatment and PPE coverage,” Ghebreyesus said, speaking at the Ports to Arms global summit on vaccine equity convened by Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance for COVID-19 (AVDA).

South Africa and India over a year ago began to push for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights under the TRIPS agreement for the duration of the pandemic before about 60 other WTO members bought in.

The waiver, according to WTO, would cover obligations in four sections of the TRIPS agreement, including section one on Copyright and Related Rights, section four on Industrial Designs, section five on Patents, and section seven on the Protection of Undisclosed Information.

It would last for a specific number of years, to be agreed or until widespread vaccination is in place globally to guarantee immunity for the majority of the world’s population. Members would review the waiver annually until termination.

But patent owners interpret the proposal as a sabotage of the huge investment flooded into the research and development of the technology, noting that it may dampen the risk appetite of investors when real time solutions are needed to tackle global challenges.

“I worry that waiving of patent protection will disincentivise anyone else from taking a big risk. We deployed $2 billion before we knew whether we could successfully develop a vaccine because we understood what was at stake. Just recently, I authorised spending an additional $600 million on COVID-19 research and development that will bring our total spend for R&D in 2021 to more than $10 billion.

“The recent rhetoric will not discourage us from continuing investing in science. But I am not sure if the same is true for the thousands of small biotech innovators that are totally dependent on capital from investors who invest only on the premise that their intellectual property will be protected,” Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman/CEO, said in an open letter last year.

He also argued that the move may not have a direct impact on the availability of COVID-19 vaccines or end the pandemic in developing countries, since the production capacity will be built from scratch with scarce raw materials needed to feed production.

Read also: WHO sets up hub to train Nigeria, others on vaccine production

The proposed waiver threatens to disrupt the flow of raw materials and could unleash a scramble for the critical inputs required in order to make a safe and effective vaccine.

Instead of waiving rights, they are proposing to ramp up both production and improve distribution better than they did last year.

The WHO chief attested to improvement in vaccine supply, saying it was overcoming many of the supply and delivery constraints faced in 2021 with almost 1.2 billion doses of vaccines delivered.

COVAX has secured enough vaccines to achieve 45 percent of coverage across countries by the middle of this year.

“Currently, infrastructure is not the bottleneck for us manufacturing faster. The restriction is the scarcity of highly specialised raw materials needed to produce our vaccine. These 280 different materials or components are produced by many suppliers in 19 different countries. Many of them needed our substantial support (technical and financial) to ramp up their production,” the CEO said.

However, President Muhammadu Buhari has said Africa will not wait for the rest of the world to save itself from the virus, but it is not clear if that means the continent will innovate its own technology.

“We will consider the capacity and the capability of the continent to be self-sufficient in manufacturing the COVID-19 tools we need most to overcome the pandemic,” Buhari said in his opening speech at the summit.

He urged the continent to ensure that equitable vaccine distribution was secured through investments and commitment in ensuring all Africans were protected from this virus and its variants.