Experts in the US are checking to see if Covid vaccines are causing health problems for young people. Photo: Facebook

India has welcomed US support for a relaxation in patent rules to give developing countries affordable access to vaccines and medicines.

New Delhi is “hopeful that with a consensus based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO.” But is the optimism over an easing of the the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) warranted? 

The US statement is cautiously worded and noncommittal. It only says, “We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen.

“Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.” 

Also read: Patent waivers no panacea for vaccine inequality

The Biden administration’s emphasis continues to be on “our vaccine supply for the American people.”

It is an America First strategy. President Joe Biden has plans to vaccinate, at least partially, 70% of adults by July 4 so that herd immunity to Covid-19 will reduce infections.

Biden’s decision on the TRIPS waiver can only be seen as a political move. A Reuters report says, citing informed sources, “Wednesday’s decision allows Washington to be responsive to the demands of the [American] eft and developing countries, while using WTO negotiations to narrow the scope of the waiver. Since the negotiations will take time, the decision also buys time to boost vaccine supplies through more conventional means.” 

People wait in a queue to receive the Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination centre in Mumbai on April 22, 2021. Photo: AFP/Punit Paranjpe

In effect, the Biden administration is juggling several balls in the air. On the one hand, the progressive left in the US politics, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party, has been demanding a TRIPS waiver for Covid vaccines.Developing countries, supported by the WHO and the UN, are also demanding the waiver.

India, a key Indo-Pacific ally of the US, was the initiator of the proposal on TRIPS waiver back in December and, in principle, the Biden administration is committed to “multilateralism.”

On the other hand, Biden, whose political life of half a century was largely spent in the US Congress, is well aware of the awesome clout of the pharmaceutical companies in American politics. From that lobby’s perspective, the patent waiver “amounts to the expropriation of the property of the pharmaceutical companies whose innovation and financial investments made the development of Covid-19 vaccines possible in the first place,” as a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security puts it. 

The US pharmaceutical industry and congressional Republicans have already gone on the offensive blasting Biden’s announcement, saying it undermines incentives for American innovation. Besides, the argument goes, even with the patent waiver, vaccine manufacturing is a complex process and is not like simply flipping a switch. 

A lab technician sorts blood samples for a Covid-19 vaccine study in Hollywood, Florida, in August , 2020. Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna

Senator Richard Burr, the top Republican on the US Senate Health Committee, denounced Biden’s decision.

“Intellectual property protections are part of the reason we have these life-saving products,” he said. “Stripping these protections only ensures we won’t have the vaccines or treatments we need when the next pandemic occurs.”

The Republican senators backed by Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Banks propose to introduce legislation to block the move. 

Clearly, Biden would rather spend his political capital on getting the necessary legislation through Congress to advance his domestic reform agenda rather than spend time and energy to take on the pharmaceutical industry to burnish his image as a good Samaritan on the world stage. 

Conceivably, Biden could be counting on the “text-based negotiations” at the WTO dragging on for months, if not years, without reaching anywhere. The US support for the waiver could even be a tactic to persuade pharmaceutical firms to back less drastic steps like sharing technology and expanding joint ventures to boost global production quickly.

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, and the real goal is, after all, expanded vaccine distribution.

Biden is well aware that there will be huge opposition to the TRIPS waiver from the United States’ European allies as well. The British press has reported that 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. 

Whereas the MEA claims that “the proposal has received the support of more than 120 countries,” Western reports have a conservative figure of 80 countries. The WTO has 164 members and all countries must agree before a waiver gets approved. It does seem a long shot. Curiously, Germany has already scrambled to reject Biden’s proposal forcefully. 

This is a race against time, since it is a real possibility that some superspreader variant with very powerful immune evasion may appear in the near future.

According to Josh Schiffer, an infectious-disease expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “It’s just next to impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. I think the likelihood that we would have a variant that emerges that is worse than the ones we’re dealing with now is much higher if you have a higher circulating number of infections, such as what’s happening in Latin America or India.”

Suffice to say, rapid vaccination is of critical importance. Even with partial protection, India can achieve higher degrees of herd immunity. Partial herd immunity is already causing the level of new infections in the US to drop despite the prevalence of the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant. Britain’s experience has been the same.

Expert opinion is that but for partial herd immunity, many regions in the US and UK would probably look like India right now with the new variants.  

Stephane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, has warned that more Covid-19 variants will emerge in coming months. Suffice to say, India simply must accelerate its vaccination rates. If the TRIPS waiver materializes, well and good. But like the tramps in the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, we cannot engage in a variety of discussions and encounters and wait for a TRIPS waiver that may never arrive. 

According to reports, the Indian government has plans to ramp up production of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin significantly, which has reportedly shown efficacy of 81% as per Phase III interim analysis results. Bharat Biotech is aiming to make 700 million doses out of its four facilities by the end of the year.

Another option would be to go for large-scale production of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which has an efficacy more than 91% according to results published in The Lancet

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is marketing the vaccine, has signed deals to produce more than 750 million doses of Sputnik V in India with six domestic vaccine makers, according to reports. Public-sector companies could also be roped in to increase the production capacity for Sputnik V vaccine. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.