Over 170 former heads of government and state and Nobel laureates – including former UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown, former French President Francois Hollande and Nobel Laureate Prof. Joseph Stiglitz – have written to US President Joe Biden asking for a waiver of intellectual property rules for the COVID-19 vaccines.
The former world leaders and eminent experts said: "...let this moment be remembered in history as the time we chose to put the collective right to safety for all ahead of the commercial monopolies of the few". A waiver of IP rules would lead to a scaling up of vaccine manufacturing across the world which would in turn slow down the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.
India has had over two lakh new COVID-19 cases and over a thousand deaths due to the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.
The letter asks Biden to support a proposal by the South African and Indian governments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that specifically asks for a waiver of UP rules with regard to COVID-19 vaccines. Given the current rate of vaccination, it would take at least another three years for mass immunisation against the virus.
"An urgent temporary waiver of intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization would help us ramp up global supply of vaccines together with a global multi-year burden sharing plan to finance vaccines for the poorest countries," Gordon Brown said, adding that this would be in the US' and other countries' "strategic interests" to do so.
"New mutations of the virus will continue to cost lives and upend our interconnected global economy until everyone, everywhere has access to a safe and effective vaccine. Intellectual property is the utmost artificial barrier to global vaccine supply. We as a nation must lead with our allies to back the South Africa and India waiver at the WTO, insist on technology transfer, and strategically invest in production," said noted American economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Former French President Hollande said that the fact that the "Biden administration is considering waiving barriers related to intellectual property rules offers hope for the international community." He added that if the US backed the lifting of patents, "Europe will have to take its responsibilities. In the face of this devastating pandemic, world leaders must prioritise the public interest and international solidarity”.
The leaders also called for an open-sharing of "vaccine know-how and technology" in addition to the IP waiver, mentioning that a coordinated effort alongside other countries in manufacturing, research and development would tide over a crisis that requires "global solidarity-based solutions."
As the former UK prime minister said, the decision would also be in the US' best interests. Vaccine inequality due to Big Pharma's monopoly could result in a $1.3 trillion loss to the US economy, "and if the virus is left to roam the world, the increased risk of new viral variants means even vaccinated people in the U.S. could be unprotected once more."
“Big pharmaceutical companies are setting the terms of the end of today's pandemic – and the cost of allowing senseless monopolies is only more death and more people being pushed into poverty," said Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
“We need strong government action to lead - not only philanthropy and the private sector – to solve today’s unprecedented crisis. We together urge President Biden to stand on the right side of history – and ensure a vaccine is a global common good, free of intellectual
property protections," he added.
Other signatories of the letter include the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, the former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and over 60 other former heads of state and governments.
Voices are also growing louder within the US for a waiver of IP rights for the vaccines.
At a time when a global pandemic is wreaking havoc, when there is a huge gap in demand and supply in vaccines and raw materials and medical equipment, India and South Africa mooted the TRIPS waiver proposal in October last year.
The proposal suggested an unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how, demanding a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations on copyrights and related rights, industrial designs, patents, and the protection of undisclosed information in relation to the prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.