Government accused of ‘playing political games’ after objecting to vaccine-sharing proposals

It is a ‘failure of the international community’ that vaccine technology isn’t being shared between countries and their manufacturers, say campaigners

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 03 August 2021 14:55
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<p>Scientists have said there are challenges involved in sharing vaccine ‘blueprints’ between manufacturers</p>

Scientists have said there are challenges involved in sharing vaccine ‘blueprints’ between manufacturers

The government has been accused of “playing political games” for once again holding up attempts to allow the open sharing of vaccine “blueprints” between manufacturers.

Both Britain and Germany are continuing to object to calls for a temporary waiver of international rules that block the free transfer of vaccine production methods from one drugmaker to another.

As a result, negotiations on the matter have been pushed back by a further three months to October – one year after South Africa and India first raised the proposals to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“Here in South Africa, tens of thousands of people have died from Covid-19 while countries such as the UK and Germany have played political games,” said Fatima Hassan, director of the Health Justice Initiative.

She said it was a “failure of the international community” that vaccine technology isn’t being shared between countries and their manufacturers.

Campaigners argue that thousands of people have needlessly died from Covid as world leaders have discussed whether to lift intellectual property rights – a move that would enable countries in the global south to produce their own doses rather than relying on handouts from other nations.

Drug manufacturers who have the capacity to produce doses are currently prevented from doing so unless they are granted a licence by the original vaccine manufacturer. Instead, many countries are receiving doses through Covax, the vaccine-sharing initiative co-led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Gavi and Cepi.

Indonesia’s government has said the country could produce 550 million doses if not for intellectual property barriers. Nearly 80,000 people have died in the country since the WTO’s negotiations began last year.

Rachmi Hertanti, executive director of Indonesia for Global Justice, said the country was “in desperate need of vaccines”.

“Our country has the capacity to produce millions of vaccine doses for Indonesians and people all over the world, but rich countries are upholding intellectual property laws that make us dependent on donations or dose imports that will never cover our entire population,” she added.

“How can WTO member nations look at this crisis and decide to sit on their hands for months longer?”

Indonesia has seen a surge in child fatalities while the country has battled the Delta variant of coronavirus, with children making up 12.5 per cent of all infections at one point last month.

In Thailand, a country that was praised for its early Covid response, daily infections are now approaching the 20,000 mark. Since October of last year, some 4,503 people have died from the virus, with fatalities rising sharply in recent weeks.

Kheetanat Wannaboworn, a programme officer at Focus on the Global South, said: “WTO must not delay concrete steps towards an intellectual property waiver, considering the context of more deadly variants that leave the low and middle-income countries more at risk without quality vaccines and functional public healthcare in place.”

India and South Africa first proposed a temporary waiver of the WTO rules in October 2020 to allow low and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines.

Both the US and France have declared their support, but a consensus needs to be reached among all WTO members for the proposal to be accepted. A small number of rich countries have opposed the move, with the UK and Germany among the most strident opponents.

However, experts have challenged the assumption that the technology and methods for producing the Covid-19 vaccines can be easily transferred between manufacturers.

In May, Professor Sarah Gilbert, the scientist who developed the Oxford vaccine, said there were multiple challenges involved in exchanging “blueprints” between pharmaceutical companies, from maintaining safety production standards at factories to ensuring high yields are maintained.

Last week, the UK announced it would begin exporting 9 million vaccine doses to countries in need, including Thailand and Indonesia.

The UK has pledged to donate 100 million vaccines overseas by June 2022, 80 million of which will go to the Covax initiative.

But the donations were dismissed by vaccine equity campaigners Global Justice Now as “shamefully inadequate” and a “shoddy piece of PR” given the UK’s continuing objections to the intellectual property waiver.

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