COVID Vaccine Patent Waiver Could be Game Changer: Amitabh Behar

“It’s morally unacceptable that we continued looking at profits over saving lives,” the CEO of Oxfam India said.

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The US government’s decision to support a temporary waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents and intellectual property rights is being touted as a “historic” decision.

At a time when India is reeling under a severe second surge, this is an extremely significant move as mass productions of vaccines could speed up inoculation drives in each of those countries, which haven’t been able to fully vaccinate their populations yet.

“It’s not easy to estimate in how many weeks or months we can see an amplified production of vaccines, but this move could be a game changer,” says Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India.

The US throwing its support behind the proposal that was pitched by India and South Africa at the WTO earlier in October 2020, certainly gives a momentum to the rallying calls by advocacy groups and the WHO for vaccine equality, but there are still hurdles in the way.

“What the Biden administration has done is absolutely remarkable and laudable, but there are several roadblocks. We’re still waiting for EU to really change its position and there are tough negotiations ahead, but let’s hope that the Biden administration gives its a serious momentum. If that happens, it will change the discourse and the vaccine shortage and inequality that we’re looking at will come to an end.”
Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India

Delay in Mass Vaccination Comes at a Great Cost

A report from Oxfam also warns that delay in vaccination could come at a big cost.

In a survey of 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries, carried out by The People’s Vaccine Alliance, “two-thirds thought that we had a year or less before the virus mutates to the extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines are rendered ineffective and new or modified vaccines are required”, the report says.

“Of those surveyed, almost a third gave a timeframe of nine months or less. Fewer than one in eight said they believed that mutations would never render the current vaccines ineffective. The overwhelming majority – 88 percent – said that persistent low vaccine coverage in many countries would make it more likely for vaccine resistant mutations to appear.”

“Countries who oppose a patent waiver should understand that anybody being vulnerable in the world, makes them vulnerable. So, vaccine nationalism and profiteering could be counter-productive at this time. It’s critical for people to understand that we will be safe only when we have vaccinated the entire globe.”
Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India

Could India’s Vaccine Shortage be Avoided if Patent Waivers Were Allowed?

Even as India opens up vaccination for all citizens between 18-45, states are unable to kickstart immunisation drives for want of enough doses.

On 4 May, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla also confirmed that the shortage is expected to continue till July at least. But if the proposal to waive patents get accepted at the WTO, what kind of a difference can it make in India?

“So far, India has been able to fully vaccinate less than two percent of the population, even though India is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines. The numbers in African countries are also really low. This wouldn’t have happened if we were actually producing vaccines without patents. There would have been a mass production of vaccines and by this time we would have seen a significant population of the world vaccinated,” Behar said.

“I would say that it’s ethically and morally unacceptable that we have continued looking at profits over saving lives.”
Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India

Speaking on what the decision entails going forward, he said, “I think the point is that we can get out the clutches of some of the big pharmas, which essentially means that a lot of other pharma companies that are competent and capable of making these vaccines will start production.”

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