Vaccine candidates for Covid-19 are at the forefront of the news. A proposal by India and South Africa for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend the implementation, application, and enforcement of relevant provisions under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the COVID-19 vaccine is now creating an IP dispute. India and South Africa have asked the WTO to waive certain TRIPS provisions to ensure access to Covid-19 medicines without IP restrictions. In October, the WTO began discussing the issue.
A number of developed countries have disputed the proposals and counter proposals which have been made for the licensing of patents to take place. The Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP) system has been proposed. The WHO has launched its CTAP, inviting countries to share data, knowledge, and intellectual property on vital life-saving health products in the fight against the coronavirus. However, India has pointed out in the WTO that no pharmaceutical companies have yet to sign up to CTAP.
More WTO discussions are due to follow.
A historic case of an Indonesian vaccine dispute demonstrates the risks of countries not cooperating. The earlier issue arose from the 2005-7 H5N1 avian flu epidemic. Australian research-based pharmaceutical manufacturer, CSL, created a vaccine which used samples extracted from Indonesia. This ultimately led to a dispute over the access to the vaccine. The vaccine was developed using the Indonesian strain of the H5N1 virus, using samples submitted via the WHO. CSL argued the samples used for research were obtained fairly and that there were no rights in the biomaterials themselves. In addition, CSL had a contract to work on this and indicated that they were not making a commercial vaccine. However, Indonesia’s Ministry of Health showed concern over pharmaceutical industries of developed countries, producing and patenting their products to sell them back to the developing countries at unaffordable prices. As a result, Indonesia withdrew from the WHO’s virus sample sharing programme.
A recent article by Helen Gubby of Stamford University discusses how the entire biomedical sector should be taken out of the patent system. There is an alternative she argues. The Coalition on Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) launched in 2017 at Davos uses public, government and philanthropic funding to create new vaccines through patent buyouts. In essence, the R&D is funded, and the IP is acquired. There are also prizes for access and the intellectual property. CEPI is funding several COVID‐19 vaccine candidates.
The international community needs to agree on a clear structure to avoid lengthy arguments in 2021 over the access to Covid-19 vaccines.