© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Vials labeled “AstraZeneca, Pfizer – Biontech, Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik V Coronavirus Disease Vaccine (COVID-19)” can be seen in this illustration, taken May 2, 2021. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Illustration
By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Leaders of world’s largest economies back ‘voluntary licensing’ of COVID-19 vaccine patents, draft summit conclusions, easing US pressure for waivers and commitments earlier to provide more funds to the World Health Organization.
The draft document, seen by Reuters, lists commitments from G20 countries and other countries and is due to be adopted on Friday at a world health summit in Rome, one of this year’s major events to coordinate global actions against the pandemic.
The draft, which is still subject to change, is the result of a compromise between experts from G20 countries who remain divided over waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.
Earlier in May, the Biden administration joined India, South Africa and many other developing countries in seeking a temporary patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, in the hopes it would boost production. and allow a more equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.
But the European Union and other vaccine-producing countries have cast doubts, saying removing U.S. restrictions on the export of vaccine raw materials, transfer of know-how and voluntary cooperation between vaccine manufacturers would ensure a much faster acceleration of world production.
The draft health summit conclusions reflect these divergent views and make no mention of patent waivers.
Instead, G20 leaders pledge to “pool patents,” a less drastic measure to encourage patent sharing. This is still a “hostile” move for drug companies, an industry expert said, but far less extreme than a patent waiver.
As part of a pool of patents, drug manufacturers voluntarily decide to share licenses for the manufacture of their products in the poorest countries. Pools have, for example, been used to facilitate access to anti-HIV drugs in Africa.
The summit conclusions underscore that G20 leaders are committed to promoting “voluntary licensing, technology and knowledge transfer, and patent pooling.”
BREATH TO WHOM?
The findings may also be a blow to the WHO and its program to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests around the world.
World leaders reaffirm their support for the program, known as the ACT Accelerator, but refrain from making a clear commitment to fully fund it. They “stress the need to fill its funding gap with an equitable burden-sharing”, reads the draft document, and they call for a “strategic review” of the regime.
This represents a major sweetener of the initial project in which the leaders made an explicit commitment for the first time to “fair and comprehensive funding” of the program.
The original draft, also seen by Reuters, was further influenced by the European Commission, which is one of the summit hosts, as well as by the Italian government which is assuming the G20 presidency this year.
A Commission spokesperson declined to comment.
The WHO program was launched in April 2020 and is still grossly underfunded. Of the more than $ 34 billion it seeks to develop, purchase and distribute anti-COVID vaccines and drugs around the world, it is still $ 19 billion short.
COVAX, which is the backbone of the vaccine-focused program, should be used to share vaccines, the draft document says. COVAX was originally designed to buy injections for poorer countries, but decisions by richer states to prioritize their own populations have contributed to a shortage in less developed countries, even for healthcare workers and the most vulnerable.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that the world had reached a situation of “vaccine apartheid”.
“The big problem is the lack of sharing. So the solution is more to share,” he said during a virtual event at the Paris Peace Forum.
The new version of the summit conclusions also say that WHO should be “adequately, sustainably and predictably funded” to prevent and respond to future health emergencies.
The original project was much more ambitious and recommended “a fully funded, independent and efficient WHO”.
The current WHO funding system was seen as a drag for the United Nations agency, which relies on regular complements from the very countries it oversees in terms of health preparedness.
Much of its funding also comes from private and public actors who decide how the money they donate is to be spent, reducing WHO’s independence.