The world needs a patent waiver on Covid vaccines. Why is the UK blocking it? | Gabriel Scally

Letting countries create their own generic versions of the jabs is the best way to combat the spread of vaccine-resistant variants

Last year the British government made a series of mistakes in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. As countries from Thailand to the US battle another wave of infections driven by more virulent strains, the UK risks making another historic mistake that could scupper our chance to end this pandemic.

Because coronavirus cases continue to rise worldwide, the risk of vaccine-resistant variants is increasing. Public health voices have already warned that if we don’t rapidly vaccinate the world’s population, our current generation of Covid-19 vaccines could be rendered ineffective within a year. The need for a rapid, global vaccination rollout is clear and urgent.

Pandemics are, by definition, global health crises. No matter how high our vaccination rate may be, no matter what restrictions we place on travel, we will not be safe from Covid-19 until we have suppressed the virus across the globe. As things stand, many countries in the southern hemisphere may not manage to achieve widespread vaccination until 2024. This long delay puts us all at risk.

Wealthy countries such as the UK have bought enough vaccinations for our populations almost three times over. The UK is, ministers say, supporting immunisation in low-income countries through Covax, a global vaccine procurement scheme. But the programme aims only to vaccinate 20% of the populations of recipient countries this year.

That does not begin to approach the threshold needed for population immunity. And it will, therefore, not prevent the risk of dangerous mutations. The approach of Covax is based on charitable principles. Commendable as the programme is, it is simply not capable of moving fast enough to bring this pandemic to an end. That is, in part, because of a shortfall in funding. But even with more funding, there are simply not enough doses being produced or planned for the entire world.

Production is being constrained because pharmaceutical companies have refused to share their vaccine technology, and intellectual property rules prevent countries from creating their own generic versions of the jabs. This means we are restricted to the supply chains of the patent-holder company. Because of this impediment, we are using just a fraction of the world’s potential global vaccine manufacturing capacity.

More than 100 nations, led by India and South Africa, are pushing to temporarily suspend patent rules at the World Trade Organization during this pandemic. But the move has been blocked by a small number of countries, including the UK and the US, as well as by the EU.

Throughout this pandemic, Independent Sage has sought to guide the government and act as a non-party political voice for sound population health policy. Our remit would not usually extend to matters of international trade. But in this case the risk to public health is clear.

By helping block a patent waiver, the UK government is stifling vaccine production, which means many countries will wait years for sufficient doses. That risks letting the virus run rampant, leading to new variants and putting our own vaccination programme in jeopardy. It would be a reckless act of self-mutilation.

At an Independent Sage briefing on Friday, we heard from Global Justice Now, an NGO that has been leading calls for a “people’s vaccine” approach. This would enable the production of open-licence Covid-19 vaccines that are available to everyone, everywhere, regardless of income, status, or background.

This week former world leaders across countries and political traditions called on President Biden to back a waiver on intellectual property right rules for Covid vaccines. In the US, the Biden administration is considering how it might meet these demands, including dropping its opposition to a patent waiver.

The British government should urgently review its opposition. We, across the UK, are cautiously moving towards reducing coronavirus restrictions and assisting the economy to recover. All of that could be lost if highly infectious, vaccine-resistant variants emerge – a “people’s vaccine” is the surest, fastest way to avoid the risk of what might be a devastating development.

In the months and years ahead, there is a risk that we will see this moment much as we now view the wasted months of last summer or the weeks leading up to Christmas 2020 – a missed opportunity to get this virus under control. The risks of this mistake could be far greater still.

  • Gabriel Scally is visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage committee


Gabriel Scally

The GuardianTramp

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