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Covid-19 vaccine makers have complained about South Africa in a letter to Joe Biden – here’s what it says

A number of top Covid-19 vaccine makers have sent a letter to US president Joe Biden, warning against efforts to undermine American intellectual property and innovation-dependent manufacturing jobs.

The letter specifically takes aim at South Africa and India’s efforts to suspend Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) at the World Trade Organization.

The letter, which was signed by senior executives at Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, was sent by pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA.

“Intellectual property protections have been essential not only to speed the research and development of new treatments and vaccines, but also to facilitate sharing of technology and information to scale up vaccine manufacturing to meet global needs.

“Eliminating those protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants, create confusion that could potentially undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, and create a barrier to information sharing.”

Most importantly, eliminating protections would not speed up production, the group said.

PhRMA said that in October 2020, India and South Africa ‘unfortunately’ formally proposed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to suspend critical intellectual property provisions of the TRIPS Agreement.

This includes the protection and enforcement of copyrights, industrial designs, patents and trade secrets on any Covid-19 innovation until widespread vaccination is in place globally, the group said.

“In requesting the waiver, India and South Africa argued without evidence that intellectual property is hindering the global response to the pandemic and that the waiver would help scale up research, development, manufacturing and supply of needed products.”

What South Africa and India are asking for 

South Africa and India approached the WTO to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights so that Covid-19 vaccines and other new technologies are accessible for poor countries.

The two nations have argued that the patents will ensure that not only the wealthiest countries will be able to access and afford the vaccines, medicines, and other new technologies needed to control the pandemic.

Without special measures, proponents argue, rich countries will benefit from new technologies as they come onto the market, while poor nations continue to be devastated by the pandemic, scientific journal the Lancet reported.

The proposal states that intellectual rights such as patents are obstructing affordable Covid-19 medical products.

A temporary ban would allow multiple actors to start production sooner, instead of having manufacturing concentrated in the hands of a small number of patent holders.

“What this waiver proposal does is it opens space for further collaboration, for the transfer of technology and for more producers to come in to ensure that we have scalability in a much shorter period of time,” said Mustaqeem De Gama, counsellor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO, who helped write the proposal.

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