Pandemic shines spotlight on intellectual property globally, as countries step up efforts to make their voices heard
Last Friday, the African Union marked a milestone as mRNA vaccine manufacturing technology now prepares to be deployed from the world’s first mRNA hub in six countries on the continent. The initiative supported by the World Health Organization, with European partners, aims to get Africa to produce vaccines for these, and more.
The high-level summit in Brussels to announce this brought together presidents from all the countries receiving the technology– Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and TunisiaWHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron.
But this comes against the backdrop of a call to relinquish intellectual property (IP) over Covid-19 tools, during the pandemic – a proposal mooted by India and South Africa. Understandably, the summit reflected the familiar tones that the intellectual property waiver discussion has witnessed over the past few months. African leaders reiterated their call for a waiver and European representatives argued that intellectual property was not an obstacle, if technology transfer could be achieved through such initiatives.
In fact, intellectual property also took center stage last week in another geography, with the closing of the deadline for submissions to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), ahead of its Special 301 report. The report is a kind of scorecard, rating countries on their IP enforcement efforts. India, along with a group of other countries, is on its “priority watch list”.
The pandemic has placed intellectual property on the global stage and in full view of the public. But it’s unclear how all of this will play out for India, which so far has been a frontrunner on these issues.
Having witnessed India’s participation in the international intellectual property arena over the years, Dr. Biswajit Dhar, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, observes that the circle is complete regarding the appeal to an exemption from intellectual property.
“At the end of the day,….we don’t have a fall back position,” he says, indicating that India should have taken a much more proactive role during the pandemic, providing vaccines and medicines. Public health experts agree that India should have resumed exports of vaccines, for example, sooner than it did after the coronavirus-induced second wave.
In its submission to the USTR, the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (representing major domestic drug manufacturers) calls for removing India from the priority watch list. “India fully abides by the multilateral TRIPS Agreement and continues to take action in line with international trends and progress,” he said.
But the submission from the PhRMA (representing multinational drugmakers) pointed out that India’s policy environment is unpredictable, with legal and regulatory systems posing “procedural and substantive barriers at every stage of the patent process. .”
Taking a bird’s-eye view of various global intellectual property developments, observers praise Africa’s efforts to establish vaccine production capacity, but wonder if India is in danger of losing some of its shine as a reliable supplier of the world.
Leena Menghaney, global intellectual property adviser for MSF Access Campaign, observes that the India-South Africa proposal on intellectual property waiver was a game-changer and spurred big pharma to pursue partnership strategies.
India has the capacity for drugs, vaccines and diagnostic reagents, she points out. Accordingly, India can regain some of its lost ground (as a reliable partner) by playing a complementary role to the African initiative, given its strengths in manufacturing APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) or lipids (for mRNA vaccines) etc.
On the USTR report, she adds, the United States should have paused the exercise, at least on pharmaceuticals, during the pandemic.
Instead, the turf has become more combative. According to PhRMA, its members have signed about 300 partnerships on Covid-19 products. “Multilateral organizations that once served as guardians of the rules-based international system are increasingly seeking to undermine, if not eliminate, the intellectual property protections that drive and support biopharmaceutical innovation…” they point out. .
The coming months will see increased international activity on intellectual property. And public health experts are calling for India’s voice (as a key pharmaceutical producer) to be heard, a little louder.
February 20, 2022