COVID-19: Experts call on UK to back intellectual property waiver on coronavirus vaccines

More than 400 academics, politicians, charities, faith leaders, and others have called on the prime minister to waive vaccine patents.

The move comes just days after the US announced it is backing the proposed waiver, a move described by the World Health Organisation’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as "monumental".

In an open letter organised by Global Justice Now, StopAIDS, and Just Treatment, the group called on Boris Johnson to "stand on the right side of history".

The letter urged the UK to follow the US example, adding: "Action is profoundly urgent. New waves of COVID-19 are rising across the globe while epidemiologists warn that new mutations risk leaving current vaccines ineffective.

"Together with sharing vaccine technologies and know-how through the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), this waiver would allow more producers to get more vaccines made, and help save countless lives and livelihoods. We must learn the painful lessons from a history of unequal access in dealing with diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

"We urge you to now provide the leadership to ensure an end to this global crisis. Defending intellectual property at all costs will not only lead to even more unnecessary loss of lives but is an unprecedented act of collective self-harm.

"Please stand on the right side of history and ensure vaccines are available to everyone, everywhere – a ‘People’s Vaccine’ – by supporting the waiver proposal at the World Trade Organisation and the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool."

Among the letter’s signatories are:

  • Members of Independent SAGE Christina Pagel and Stephen Reicher
  • Former Conservative ministers Baroness Verma and Dr Daniel Poulter MP
  • Liberal Democrats including foreign affairs and health spokesperson Layla Moran
  • Green MP Caroline Lucas
  • Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MP Sarah Champion, chair of the international development committee
  • Lord Bernard Ribeiro, Conservative peer and former president of the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Lord Leslie Turnberg, former president of the Royal College of Physicians
  • More than 80 charities, including Oxfam, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid
  • COVID survivors
  • Unions including Unison, transport unions ASLEF and TSSA, and the Fire Brigades Union

Companies, such as the pharmaceutical firms making COVID-19 vaccines, protect their work with intellectual property laws, such as patents and copyright.

But the waiver would allow the production of cheaper generic versions of the vaccines, significantly boosting production and distribution to the world’s poorer countries, many of which are yet to start vaccination programmes.

The waiver proposal was initially brought to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October by India and South Africa.

It was backed by 100 other countries, but was blocked by a number of wealthier nations.

Britain has previously encouraged knowledge sharing between industry and manufacturers, but has stopped short of calling for intellectual property waivers.

The UK government said earlier this month that it was "working with WTO members to resolve this issue" and was in discussions with countries including the US to try to boost COVID vaccine production and supply.

    In recent weeks, the issue has become more urgent with the surge of cases in India, the world’s second-most populous country.

    There are also concerns that allowing the virus to spread in poorer countries increases the risk of vaccine-resistant mutations that could render our current vaccines obsolete.

    But not everyone thinks that an intellectual property waiver is the solution.

    Some critics have said that supply chains are the source of the vaccine shortage, adding that producing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and should not be left to a potential free-for-all.

    There are also concerns that lifting such protections could discourage future innovation – companies spend a lot of money researching such breakthroughs and they rely on the protections to make sure their work is not then copied by others for easy profit.

    But advocates of the IP waiver argue that all of the major vaccine producers – Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Novovax, and AstraZeneca – have been funded at least in part by taxpayers and guaranteed pre-orders from governments.

    Heidi Chow, senior campaigns and policy manager at Global Justice Now, part of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: "Right now, there are factories sitting idle that could be producing billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, but intellectual property rules are restricting production to the supply chains just a few companies.

    "It is utterly shameful that the UK remains complicit in this crisis. The prime minister must now read the writing on the wall, step up and support a patent waiver for the sake of all humanity."

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