Britain resists calls for IP rights on Covid-19 vaccines to be waived

Britain resists Joe Biden (and Harry and Meghan) over call for for a ‘waiver’ on vaccine patents as MPs say it is unfair on firms that spent billions developing them and amid fears they just won’t bother again

  • Britain has been in closed-door talks at the World Trade Organization in recent months with other countries
  • Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Singapore, European Union and US have all opposed waiving of IP rights
  • But Joe Biden reversed course this week and backed idea first floated by India and South Africa last October 
  • Prince Harry and Meghan want vaccine makers to increase allocation of doses distributed to poorer countries

Those backing the waiver including Harry and Meghan say it would allow poorer countries to produce the jabs for themselves

Britain is among a host of countries resisting calls led by US President Joe Biden and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines to be waived to boost jab rates in poorer countries.  

Those backing the waiver including Harry and Meghan say it would allow poorer countries to produce the jabs for themselves – but many countries are resisting it amid concerns it would hit competition and the overall fight against the pandemic.

The UK has been in closed-door talks at the World Trade Organization in recent months along with the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Singapore, the European Union and the US, who all opposed the idea.

But President Joe Biden reversed course on Wednesday and called for a waiver – allowing other firms to copy and produce the vaccine without being sued – a move backed by humanitarian groups worried about vaccines being distributed so far primarily to the wealthy countries that made them. 

UK ministers are keen to stay out of the patents row until the shape of any plan becomes clearer. But one UK government source stressed that it was not an issue for AZ. 

‘The AZ jab, which the UK government has funded with Oxford, is being produced at cost by AZ. That is a vaccine which they will not be making profits on.’  

Some freemarket-supporting MPs have also questioned whether the waiver would be fair on firms that have ploughed billions into research and development (R&D). 

Senior Tory Marcus Fysh said that introducing a vaccine waiver on commercially manufactured drugs ‘opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions about the Government’s rights to take patents (held by) private businesses off them if it suits them.’

‘It’s a bad idea, because companies put a huge amount of effort and capital into developing new drugs and treatments of one kind or another and they need to get a return on it,’ he told MailOnline.

‘You cannot look at each one in isolation and say ”well that’s a massive return (on investment)” because they also spend a lot of money on R&D and development that goes nowhere. So it has to look at it overall.’

He added that it would be far better for more money and expertise to be put into forms of vaccinations that do not require injections or cold storage, to speed up the drive in developing countries with warmer climates. 

President Joe Biden (pictured yesterday in Lake Charles, Louisiana) wants a waiver on intellectual property rights on vaccines

Employees work in the production of Biontech/Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine at a facility in Reinbek, Germany, last week

The UK has been in closed-door talks at the World Trade Organization along with other countries. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured with his fiancée Carrie Symonds before casting his vote in the local elections in London yesterday

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would support the idea (left, in Sochi yesterday), but German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right, in Berlin yesterday) is against it, with her office saying the protection of IP is a ‘source of innovation’

A man receives the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine inside a mobile vaccination vehicle in Essex yesterday

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle urge Covid jab makers to increase doses for poorer nations

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have called on Covid vaccine manufacturers to act with ‘responsibility and leadership’ and increase their allocation of doses distributed to poorer parts of the world.

Harry and Meghan have written an open letter to the chief executives of pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca urging them to redouble their support for the UN-sponsored Covax programme.

The couple have called on all firms to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights applied to Covid vaccines, and for a ‘global public-private collaboration’ so production methods for the jabs can be shared.

Harry and Meghan (pictured in March) have written an open letter to the chief executives of pharmaceutical companies

The Sussexes’ intervention into the global debate about the vaccine rollout comes on the second birthday of their son Archie, and separately they have asked those wanting to mark this to donate funds which will support Covax.

At the weekend Harry appeared with a host of famous names from the worlds of music, film and politics at Global Citizen’s Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World, a charity performance in aid of the international Covid vaccination effort.

Speaking to an animated crowd of only fully-vaccinated guests, the duke asked for vaccines to be ‘distributed to everyone everywhere’, while also saluting frontline medical workers both at the concert and around the world.

Harry and Meghan, writing in their roles as Vax Live campaign chairs, said: ‘As of May 1, over 80 per cent of the 1.2 billion vaccine doses administered globally have occurred in high and upper-middle-income countries while the very lowest income countries have administered just 0.4 per cent.

‘As we are seeing in countries like India, the urgency to deliver doses now to save lives and stop the spread of Covid-19 is only increasing.

‘That’s why it is imperative that we ensure equitable vaccine access globally so that people are protected, economies can recover, and this global pandemic can be brought to an end everywhere.

‘Therefore we, the undersigned, stand with global citizens who want to see Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers act with extraordinary purpose, responsibility, and leadership in response to this equity crisis.’

Harry and Meghan’s letter is available for the public to sign on the website of the anti-poverty movement Global Citizen, and it calls on Moderna to ‘move up your delivery schedule with Covax and increase the promised 2021 volume to at least 100 million doses’.

It also urges Pfizer/BioNTech ‘to commit at least 100 million additional doses to Covax at a not-for-profit price and to deliver them as soon as possible this year’.

Covax was set up last year to try to establish fair access to the vaccines for poor and rich nations, but huge discrepancies have emerged.

It has been reported that more than 49million doses have been delivered through the system but more than £25billion is still needed to ensure most adults are immunised.

While the British Government is among the biggest donors to Covax, it has come under criticism for slashing the aid budget to 0. per cent of gross national income, despite the Conservative manifesto pledging to keep it at 0.7 per cent.

Marie Rumsby, UK country director for Global Citizen, said: ‘The work of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the Vax Live campaign demonstrates how urgent the need is to act now and ensure everyone, everywhere has access to Covid-19 vaccines.

‘We are grateful for their leadership in urging Covid-19 vaccine equity to help end the pandemic. We hope this will be the catalyst for many more commitments to come.’

Scientists are already looking at whether the vaccine can be administered using a pill, a nasal spray or sublingually, where the medication dissolves in the mouth.

‘I would like the government to accelerate that because that is where you can really make inroads, for example if you are trying to vaccinate several hundred million people in India, clearly being able to send out a pill or sublingual thing would be so much faster to get it done. Speed is very important in this,’ he added. 

Vaccine makers like Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTEch have argued that patents have not been a limiting factor in supply. New technology and global limits on supplies are frequently cited as challenges, and both Moderna and Pfizer nevertheless have steadily boosted supply forecasts. 

The Biden administration announcement made the US the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea which was floated by India and South Africa last October. 

One day later, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who live in California, called on vaccine manufacturers to act with ‘responsibility and leadership’ and increase their allocation of doses distributed to poorer parts of the world.

Now, lawyers said today that US support for the waiver could be a tactic to convince pharmaceutical firms to back less drastic steps like sharing technology and expanding joint ventures to quickly boost global production.

Some 80 countries, mostly developing ones, have backed the proposal – but the decision is ultimately up to the 164-member WTO based in Geneva, and if just one country votes against a waiver, the proposal will fail.

The plans have led to split in global views – with India welcoming the idea, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling the US position ‘great news’ and Russian President Vladimir Putin saying he would back it.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office spoke out against it, saying intellectual property protection is ‘a source of innovation and must remain so in the future’ – the country focusing on how to increase production.

In Brazil, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said he fears that the country does not have the means to produce vaccines and that the lifting of patent protections could interfere with its efforts to buy doses from drug firms.

France’s Emmanuel Macron said he ‘completely favours’ the plan, but added that manufacturers in Africa are not now equipped to make vaccines, so donations of jabs from wealthier countries should be given priority instead. 

University of East Anglia health economist Farasat Bokhari said of pharmaceutical firms: ‘They’re not doing it voluntarily. If the governments force them to do it, they would just be seen as having been dragged (along).’ 

And Lisa Ouellette, a legal professor at Stanford University in California, said: ‘I think the end result that most players are looking for here is not IP waiver in particular, it’s expanded global access to the vaccines.

‘If it is possible to increase the rate of scaling up production, this potentially would give the manufacturers a greater incentive to come to an agreement to make that happen.’  

On Wednesday, Mr Biden supported a proposal to waive WTO intellectual property rules, which would allow poorer countries to produce vaccine for themselves. 

So far Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed primarily to the wealthy countries that developed them, while the pandemic sweeps through poorer ones, such as India. The real goal is expanded vaccine distribution. 

Vaccine makers such as Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTEch have argued that patents have not been a limiting factor in supply.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the urgency of moving fast now, telling NBC while visiting Ukraine: ‘On the current trajectory, if we don’t do more, if the entire world doesn’t do more, the world won’t be vaccinated until 2024.’

A Geneva-based trade official told the Associated Press that Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the US have opposed the idea in closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months.

The official added that 80 countries have supported the proposal – and that China and Russia, two other major Covid-19 vaccine makers, didn’t express a position but were open to further discussion.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the 27-nation bloc is ready to talk about the idea, but she remained non-committal and emphasised that the EU has been exporting vaccines widely.

EU leaders said the bloc may discuss the matter at a summit that starts today. The pharmaceutical industry has argued that a waiver will do more harm than good in the long run.

Easing patent protections would eat into their profits, potentially reducing the incentives that push companies to innovate and make the kind of huge leaps they did with the vaccines, which have been produced very quickly.

Pfizer has hit out at the Biden administration’s support for waiving intellectual property protections to allow poorer countries to produce vaccines developed by companies like it and Moderna, potentially cutting into the firms’ profits.

It comes just hours after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle penned an open letter to vaccine makers urging them to suspend the patent protections to help developing countries gain access to the shots.

Shares for vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna tumbled on Thursday, following the Biden administrations announcement that it supports waiving the protections during the pandemic.

‘It is so wrong,’ Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said of Biden’s support of waivers on legal protections to keep his firm’s Covid vaccine formula secret in a Wall Street Journal interview.

Pfizer has spent the past year securing supply lines and ramping up production for the vaccine, and punishing the firm by taking away firms’ exclusive rights to their vaccine formulas would discourage biotech companies from creating treatments and innoculations for future pandemics, Bourla told the outlet.

On Tuesday, Pfizer said it had made $3.46 billion in first-quarter vaccine sales. The New York Times estimated that would come out to about $900 million in pretax profits from vaccines in the past three months alone.

Pfizer shares were down just shy of one percent on Thursday afternoon, while its partner BioNtech’s shares slipped 1.62 percent. Moderna recovered slightly by the end of the day Thursday, after its share price plummeted 12 percent earlier on.

In addition to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, many public health advocates say vaccine makers should allow other countries to use their Covid vaccine formulas to make their own cheaper versions of the shots, regardless of the effect on their future profits.

The initial push to suspend patents was made by South Africa and India, both poorer nations in the midst of Covid crises. India in particular has become a global epicenter of the pandemic, and recorded nearly 4,000 coronavirus fatalities yesterday – a record for the hard-hit nation.

But experts – both within and outside of the vaccine-making firms – argue that opening the patent books won’t actually get Covid vaccines to countries in crisis like India any time soon.

Germany agrees, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office reiterating the argument that waiving patents won’t help boost production in the short-term, and could hamper innovation in the longer-term.


The industry has contended, too, that production of the vaccines is complicated and can’t be ramped up simply by easing patent rights. Instead, it has said that reducing snarls in supply chains and shortages of ingredients is a more pressing issue.

The industry has insisted that a faster solution would be for rich countries to share their vaccine stockpiles with poorer ones.

A spokesman for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said: ‘A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem.

‘Waiving patents of Covid-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis.’ 

New technology and global limits on supplies are frequently cited as challenges, and both Moderna and Pfizer nevertheless have steadily boosted supply forecasts.

‘There is no mRNA in manufacturing capacity in the world,’ Moderna Chief Executive Stephane Bancel told investors yesterday, referring to the messenger RNA technology behind both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine.

‘This is a new technology. You cannot go hire people who know how to make the mRNA. 

‘Those people don’t exist. And then even if all those things were available, whoever wants to do mRNA vaccines will have to buy the machine, invent the manufacturing process, invent verification processes and analytical processes.’

To increase vaccine production capacity significantly within two years, the Biden administration would need to do much more than waive patents, said drug supply chain expert Prashant Yadav.

He said this would include providing funding to find and build new manufacturing sites, and backing technology and expertise transfer to the new manufacturers.

Thomas Kowalski, a lawyer at Duane Morris who specializes in intellectual property, also said the US government must guard against allowing foreign companies to use COVID-19 vaccine makers’ to compete in areas outside of Covid-19, which are likely to be more lucrative in the long term.

Once a competitor has the technology, restrictions on use are difficult to enforce, he said.

Professor Sarah Rajec of William & Mary Law School in Virginia said she did not think a waiver itself would do as much as the signal from the US, a stronger supporter of corporate intellectual property, that patent rights take a backseat to the urgent needs of the world population during the pandemic.

Ms Rajec said Mr Biden’s support for a waiver ‘pushes the drug companies to be more open to partnerships, and other licensing on favorable terms, in a way that perhaps they otherwise wouldn’t be’.

Drug manufacturers argue that they have already struck significant partnerships, sharing technology with competitors who they might not have linked up with if not for the pandemic.

Brian Newell, spokesman for pharmaceutical industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said: ‘Our position is very clear: this decision will further complicate our efforts to get vaccines to people around the world, address emerging variants and save lives.’

Now AstraZeneca could be banned for under-40s 

Britons under 40 will be offered an alternative to the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid jab after it was linked to potentially fatal blood clots, it was claimed last night.

Advisers are understood to have written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggesting the move after more adults suffered side effects. The experts believe the risk of clotting now outweighs that of Covid in younger adults.

They previously recommended that those under 30 with no underlying health conditions should be offered an alternative, such as the Pfizer or Moderna jabs. 

But this age is expected to be increased to 40, with the decision announced today, the Independent reported. The UK is understood to have enough supplies of alternative vaccines to offer all adults a first dose by the Government’s July 31 target.

The source said: ‘Because prevalence of Covid is low and given the strength of the programme, that means we’re in a position to act with an abundance of caution and offer a different vaccine to the younger groups.’

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been analysing the data and drafted its recommendation earlier this week. The latest figures from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) show there have been 10.5 cases of blood clots combined with low platelet counts per million doses.

There have been 242 cases of the rare clotting disorder following the Oxford jab up to April 28, with more than 28million doses now administered.

European patent lawyer Micaela Modiano said that even if the waiver is adopted, vaccine makers are likely to negotiate for some payment, if less than what is generally paid in licensing arrangements. 

Ms Modiano, whose firm Modiano & Parners represents Pfizer but has not worked on any Covid-19 related matters, said: ‘I would imagine that the pharmaceutical companies are already and will continue to lobby significantly to make sure that if this waiver proposal passes, that it just doesn’t pass as such, but that they receive some sort of financial compensation.’  

Intellectual property law expert Shyam Balganesh, a professor at Columbia University, said a waiver would only go so far because of bottlenecks in the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines.

Backers of the waiver say that expanded production by the big pharmaceutical companies and donations from richer countries to poor ones won’t be enough, and that there are manufacturers standing by that could make the vaccines if given the blueprints.

‘A waiver of patents for Covid-19 vaccines and medicines could change the game for Africa, unlocking millions more vaccine doses andsaving countless lives,’ World Health Organization Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tweeted.

Just over 20 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent, which has 1.3 billion people.

There is a precedent – for in 2003, WTO members agreed to waive patent rights and allow poorer countries to import generic treatments for the AIDS virus, malaria and tuberculosis.

‘We believe that when the history of this pandemic is written, history will remember the move by the U.S. government as doing the right thing at the right time,’ Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said.

Yesterday’s daily death toll in Britain from Covid was 13, bringing the UK total to 127,583. 

Some 81 deaths have been reported in seven days – down 48 per cent. 

A further 2,613 people have tested positive for Covid, taking the tally to 4,428,553. The weekly total is down 10 per cent. Cases have fallen across all regions except the North West.

Meanwhile, the Indian strain of Covid is likely to be declared a ‘variant of concern’ after more than 40 clusters were reportedly found across England.

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