The World Health Organization is moving to reboot its intellectual property sharing scheme as vaccine shortages threaten poorer nations’ attempts to emerge from the pandemic and as the debate over patents intensifies.
In a letter published on Thursday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado Quesada called on member states to engage with vaccine manufacturers to encourage IP sharing and tech transfer through the scheme.
“The single most important priority of the global community is to stop the pandemic in its tracks, to halt its rapid transmission and reverse the trend of consequential global distress,” they wrote. “We know that this goal is only achievable when everyone, everywhere, can access the health technologies they need for Covid-19 detection, prevention, treatment and response.”
The WHO with Costa Rica last year launched C-Tap (the Covid-19 technology access pool) for Covid vaccines, tests and drugs, but the initiative failed to attract enough interest from higher-income nations and the pharmaceuticals industry.
In a surprise move this month, the US offered generic backing for a separate vaccine patent waiver. But observers have said the move, while symbolically significant, does little to address the technicalities needed to see it through.
For its part, the pharmaceuticals industry has resisted any attempts to get it to share its trade secrets, arguing that patents and the monopolies they create are necessary to protect the risky investments needed to bring drugs to market. Most Covid drugs and virtually all western Covid vaccines have been developed with the aid of at least some taxpayer money.
Crucially, C-Tap, which is now also backed by Spain, would rely on voluntary pooling of IP and trade secrets, offering companies compensation through royalties. It would also use a blueprint deployed to manufacture and distribute drugs for HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis, and make poorer nations less dependent on foreign aid and multinational companies.
The WHO estimates that if vaccine makers adhered to the scheme, the world would benefit from a greater availability of shots by the end of next year. At present, there is significant inequality in access to vaccines.
As of Monday, the number of doses shipped by vaccine procurement scheme Covax stood at 70m — sufficient for less than 0.5 per cent of the combined population of the 124 countries it serves.
In the short term, the C-Tap scheme would spur the manufacturing of tests and drugs needed to stem the spread of contagion and reduce deaths where they are high.
Tedros has from the beginning of the pandemic called for greater sharing of knowhow, with the aim of balancing health inequalities in the long run.
“It took us 10 years to make [HIV] antiretrovirals available to low- and middle-income countries, which needed them most. By then, millions of people had died,” he told the Financial Times. “We can’t afford to reproduce a similar watershed. It would be unethical, but also short-sighted.”
“Those who do not contribute to these [global solidarity] efforts are effectively contributing to prolonging the crisis.”