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EDITORIAL: US President Joe Biden’s decision to support the call to waive intellectual property rights (IPRs) for Covid-19 vaccines will go a long way in rallying consensus at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), where the matter is being discussed, but whether it is really anything more than an ideological victory of sorts remains to be seen. The proposal was floated by India and South Africa in November 2020, but since the WTO is a consensus organisation all 164 members must agree for the long process of going over every clause of the rules to even start. So, even if all of the countries where vaccines are produced are won over, and pharmaceutical companies that have already hit the ceiling over the whole thing are also reined in, it will still take months or even years to begin the transfer of technology; which will then have to be followed by all sorts of things like infrastructure, appropriate workforce, etc. So nothing is changing in a hurry.

Indeed, it is just such complications that make it so easy for lawyers of pharma giants to take the position that relaxing the patents to give everybody the technology would be like giving “a recipe book without the ingredients”. The more common interpretation of their reluctance to play along is that there is no way they will put people before profits in what is clearly an epic gold rush-moment for them. That also explains why their spokespersons continue to imply with a straight face that the best way to speed up vaccinations across the world is to let the companies that are doing it get on with their job. That, even in the best case scenario, is what is going to happen so the debate about making an exception when it comes to intellectual property rights in the face of an unprecedented crisis is still largely a theoretical one. For there can be no denying the importance of these rules, but it is also true that the pandemic has once again reminded everybody that even the most central laws need to be ignored in special circumstances. Yet realising what to do is one thing and getting it done is quite another.

This is bad news for poor countries like India that are suffering very badly from the third wave of the coronavirus. It would of course have been very good news for them if producing vaccines locally was as simple a matter as pushing some policy initiative through in some corner of the world. Yet despite all the support this idea has won since it was first introduced more than half a year ago it is still pretty much a pipedream. That does not mean, however, that it does not expose how some of the international marketplace’s best made rules can be so frustratingly self-defeating at times. Now, even when more than one hundred countries including the United States are pushing for this initiative, it has slim chance of success and even if it does succeed it has even slimmer chances of making much of a difference on the ground.

It is still very important to move the argument forward, even if just to set a very important precedent. Countries and companies should simply not be able or allowed to hide behind international laws at times when so many lives are at stake. There should also be laws in place that can be invoked in unforeseen situations just like the one created by the pandemic and the lockdowns. There is a very clear need for all countries, especially poor ones with very large populations, to be self-sufficient when it comes to vaccine production when all sorts of precautions have failed to halt the worldwide spread of the coronavirus and the supply and reach of vaccines is nowhere near quick enough to deal with such high and so desperate demand. Even if the advocates of relaxing IPRs to help struggling countries and people walk away with just new rules that would make things easier in future, it would not be a small or meaningless victory.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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