A member of the Paris Fire Brigade prepares a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

A patent waiver 'strikes the right balance' between commercial interests and public health, says South Africa WTO rep

Mustaqeem De Gama, South Africa's representative to the World Trade Organization, tells The World's Marco Werman about the global effort to relax intellectual property restrictions during the pandemic.

The World

A member of the Paris Fire Brigade prepares a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a new vaccination center in Paris, May 6, 2021. France joined the United States on Thursday in supporting an easing of patent and other protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic.

Michel Euler/AP

Around the world, there was elation yesterday, when advocates learned that the Biden administration would support a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. In other words, opening the door for countries and companies to make vaccines developed and patented by drug companies.

Related: South Africa boosts continent's vaccines with local manufacturing

The industry is pushing back.

Thomas Cooney, who heads the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, which represents companies like Pfizer, told The World that a waiver is misunderstood. It's not simply a matter of handing over a vaccine instruction manual.

Related: Calls for fair global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

"I think what's misunderstood is the idea that the waiver would be the recipe to bake a cake, whereas, actually, you need somebody who is knowledgeable about baking the cake to share what they know, which you will never find, you know, even in the best cookbook," he said. 

It's also argued that waivers could harm the system that brought us these lifesaving drugs.

Related: Thousands of medical workers left behind in Mexico's vaccine rollout

Today, The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Mustaqeem De Gama, South Africa's representative to the World Trade Organization, and the person at the center of this effort to relax intellectual property restrictions during the pandemic. De Gama introduced the waiver proposal to World Trade Organization council members, and we asked him for his reaction to the Biden administration's decision.

Marco Werman: The US had been solidly against patent waivers. What changed, in your view?

Mustaqeem De Gama: Well, I think firstly, the change of administration. President Biden had campaigned on the basis of equity and some reform. Secondly, the evolution of the virus has taken many turns. And so, from that perspective, what we've seen is that even if a country is able to have an effective rollout of vaccines, all of the good work may be undone by mutants and variants. And it's imperative that we now have a truly global effort to try and contain, treat and eradicate COVID-19.

The White House is still using language that shows its long-term support for intellectual property protection. Why do you think a waiver on vaccine patents is needed?

Even though there are other barriers to access, having a waiver on patents will enable further collaboration and will also enable the appropriate transfer of technology and know-how. Having a waiver does not mean that we invalidate intellectual property protection. It should be very clear that this waiver is targeted and only directed at medical goods and products. And so, we believe that the waiver strikes the right balance between the commercial interests that rights-holders may have and, obviously, the public interest that governments may have in the health of their populations.

As you know, many in the vaccine world do not see this waiver as doing much to help. They argue it could weaken supply chains, it could increase the likelihood of counterfeit vaccines, not to mention lowering the profits of drug companies, which could have a knock-on effect on future research and development. Is a waiver really the answer?

Well, we believe that the waiver is the answer. There are various factors for these shortages, including export restrictions that have been imposed by members. So, from a logical perspective, we don't believe that the waiver will necessarily exacerbate this. It may actually enable further collaboration to address these particular bottlenecks. Many people make the argument, even if you get the waiver tomorrow, you will not have any production. That may be correct, but as more producers come online, we are able to manage those bottlenecks.

Let me ask you this. The waiver is not officially done yet. There are a lot of steps before South Africa and countries in your region can ramp up their own manufacturing. What happens next to get from yesterday's announcement to actual new doses ready to go into people's arms?

Well, we need to get the waiver passed, because as soon as we have the waiver passed, we would then be able to be in a position to ramp up production. In the interim, I don't think that things are at a standstill because there's several other things happening concurrently. We've always been of the opinion that the waiver assists all of these processes, whether it be at a bilateral or regional level or in a cross-sectional way. ... And it's made easier when you do have a waiver that enables better sharing of information, better collaboration without intellectual property rights being a barrier.

What else besides a waiver on patents would be effective, do you think? What would make a difference?

Well, at the moment, a few things. Firstly, if we enhance global solidarity, if countries that have oversubscribed, that have additional doses of the vaccine could donate these, that would help quite a lot. Every little bit helps. As I also indicated, any export restrictions, trade restrictions in the interim, should be applied at a minimum. And certainly, we would caution against any steps that could impede either the trade or the value chains that are so important in the manufacture and production of vaccines.

The US statement on waivers yesterday references vaccines, not other medicines or tests. What's your take on that language?

Well, our proposal, as more widely couched, and we think vaccines would only be one of the avenues that we could use to contain, treat and prevent COVID-19. There's also therapeutics, diagnostics. Having said that, I believe that there is much to be said about the limited focus of the US proposal. We are yet to discuss it in a more comprehensive way.

Working on the pandemic puts you constantly in the position of absorbing bad news on top of bad news. This announcement of waiving the patents on vaccines and opening up vaccine production, how does it feel to get what seems like a win?

Well, yes, I think we have to be cautiously optimistic that now we [are] in the field and we can start the game. It's a small step forward, as I said, and we are under no illusion that there's much work to be done and we can start to negotiate. We probably will not get everything we want, but if we get at least what is required, that would be good for everyone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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