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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.