Government told COVID vaccine patent waiver threatens global inoculation

By Melissa Coade

September 16, 2021

Drug supply chains have changed dramatically in recent decades. (M.Rode-Foto/Adobe)

The Australian government has been warned by industry representatives from pharmaceutical and biotech sectors not to support a proposed patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.

On Tuesday the CEOs of peak bodies Medicines Australia and AusBiotech issued a statement calling for the federal government not to support a proposed patent waiver known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) waiver.

Elizabeth de Somer from Medicines Australia and Lorraine Chiroiu from AusBiotech said this waiver before the World Trade Organization was a ‘form of forced technology transfer’ that would ‘undermine the global vaccination effort’. They also underscored previous statements made by Australian trade minister Dan Tehan that patents in and of themselves do not limit vaccine availability. 

“[We] acknowledge the Australian government’s determination to play a constructive role in the resolution of this issue, including their recognition that the multilateral intellectual property system critically supports innovation,” the joint statement from de Somer and Chiroiu read.

Medicines Australia and AusBiotech also pointed to factors such as increased production capability, supply chain improvements and voluntary technology transfer agreements which have allowed for the worldwide production of 1.5 billion doses of COVID vaccines per month. They say the focus must now shift to distribution methods that will see the doses sent where they are needed. 

“All humans should have equitable and timely access to COVID-19 vaccines and the biopharmaceutical industry continues to call for governments to increase dose sharing and remove delivery bottlenecks,” the statement said.

A five-step plan to advance COVID-19 vaccine equity developed by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) has been endorsed by Medicines Australia and AusBiotech. According to the sector, the action that is needed includes:

  1. stepping up dose sharing
  2. optimising production
  3. eliminating trade barriers 
  4. supporting country readiness 
  5. driving further innovation

As a result of the efforts of global biopharmaceuticals, Somer and Chiroiu said approximately 3.3 billion people worldwide have now received a COVID-19 vaccine which has led to many lives spared and allowed economies to reopen. 

Contrasting the positive vaccination uptake data, they noted that only 1% of the low-income nation populations had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

“While our industry is committed to sharing COVID-19 vaccines quickly and equitably, the proposed patent waiver is a wishful solution to a complex problem. 

“Waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines and therapies will not address the real challenges to vaccinating the world,” they said.

Strong intellectual property protections were helping to develop vaccine innovation and improved treatments for COVID-19, the duo added, claiming that the global biopharmaceutical industry had been working ‘day and night’ to develop a solicitation to the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

“Our industry collaborates closely with governments, academia and charities around the world to manufacture and distribute safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines. 

“This tremendous collaboration has been enabled – not undermined – by the international intellectual property system,” Somer and Chiroiu said.

“If a compulsory acquisition of patents are put into place, there will be serious, long-term impacts, which will dampen the drive for investment into medical research and innovation, placing us in a worse position to tackle new COVID-19 variants and preparation for future health crises.”

The sector leaders concluded their statement by explaining that they regarded the TRIPS waiver as a ‘forced transfer and acquisition of knowledge and technology, which will undermine the development of safe, effective and quality vaccines’. Because vaccine manufacturing was complex and required specialist technical equipment and know-how that required years of investment to build, they said that it made more sense to build partnerships backed by a reliable international intellectual property system.

“Rather than causing more bottlenecks and delays by supporting the TRIPS waiver, we hope that the Australian Government will engage in a pragmatic and constructive dialogue with industry focused on the real barriers to global vaccination,” they said.


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