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Protests against vaccine patents

Protesters walk with coffins from Parliament Square to Downing Street during a protest organized by the group Global Justice Now on October 12, 2021. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

320+ Scientists: Suspend Vaccine Patents to Prevent Future Variants

"Allowing huge numbers of people in low- and middle-income countries to remain unvaccinated is a reckless approach to public health," experts warn in a new letter.

Jake Johnson

With a new subtype of the Omicron variant spreading rapidly in dozens of countries, more than 320 scientists on Friday implored the U.K. government to stop obstructing a coronavirus vaccine patent waiver designed to bolster global production of the lifesaving shots.

"However laudable donations of vaccines might be, they will never be enough to end the pandemic."

In a letter to scandal-plagued British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the scientists and public health experts from the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. warned that the only way to put an end to the vicious cycle of new coronavirus mutations is to vaccinate "the vast majority of the world's population."

"Allowing huge numbers of people in low- and middle-income countries to remain unvaccinated is a reckless approach to public health that creates conditions where new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern are more likely to develop," the letter reads. "Indeed, the Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and South Africa, on a continent in which fewer than one in 10 are fully vaccinated."

"We call on the U.K. government to support the temporary waiver of intellectual property rules under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to scale up and diversify production of the tools needed to end this pandemic," the letter continues.

More than 100 firms in the developing world stand ready to produce mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines, but pharmaceutical companies have refused to voluntarily share their recipes and technology, forcing low-income countries to rely on charity from rich nations and exploitative bilateral deals.

As a result of such inequities, fewer than 10% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to Our World in Data.

Meanwhile, worldwide vaccine production remains far behind where experts say it needs to be to end the pandemic. One recent analysis estimated that 22 billion additional mRNA vaccine doses will be necessary to defeat the deadly virus.

"We urge you to put public health before the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry."

"However laudable donations of vaccines might be, they will never be enough to end the pandemic," Nigel Crisp, former chief executive of the U.K.'s National Health Service, said in a statement Friday. "There is untapped manufacturing capacity in the very nations that need vaccines and treatments most. For the sake of people's lives in those countries and our own, we must use it."

In October 2020, just months into the global pandemic, India and South Africa introduced a proposal at the WTO to suspend patent protections for coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics, a move that would allow developing countries to produce generic vaccines for their populations.

While the measure quickly garnered support from more than 100 WTO member nations, a group of rich countries—including the U.K., Canada, and Germany—objected as the pharmaceutical industry lobbied aggressively against the proposal.

Several new variants and millions of coronavirus-related deaths later, the patent waiver remains bottled up at the WTO with no breakthrough in sight. The Biden administration expressed support for a patent waiver back in May, but critics say it has not done nearly enough to pressure the U.K. and other allies to drop their opposition.

The WTO TRIPS Council, the body that oversees intellectual property rules, doesn't have any formal meetings on its schedule for 2022.

Maryam Shahmanesh, professor of Global Health at University College London and one of the signatories to the new letter, said Friday that "scientific knowledge should be shared, but the U.K. has helped a handful of companies privatize vaccine recipes that should be a public good."

"By ignoring the demands of low and middle-income countries and stifling global vaccine production with arbitrary intellectual property rules," she added, "the government risks prolonging the pandemic and endangering countless lives."

Read the scientists' full letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

We write to you as scientists, academics, and public health experts concerned about the emergence of the Omicron variant and the threat that future variants may pose to public health, the NHS, and the U.K.'s vaccination programme.

Vaccinating the vast majority of the world’s population is the best way to prevent SARS-CoV-2 from mutating. However, as the U.K. has provided booster doses to up to one million people every day, more than 3 billion people across the world have yet to receive their first dose. More boosters have been delivered in rich countries than the total number of all doses administered so far in poorer nations.

Allowing huge numbers of people in low- and middle-income countries to remain unvaccinated is a reckless approach to public health that creates conditions where new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern are more likely to develop. Indeed, the Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and South Africa, on a continent in which fewer than one in ten are fully vaccinated.

Thanks to remarkable scientific innovations, we have a number of vaccines that remain highly effective against all known Covid-19 variants. Yet, unless we share this technology with the world and increase global vaccination coverage, vaccines will not be effective at stopping new variants of concern. We must use and expand domestic vaccine manufacturing and distribution capacity within low and middle-income countries. However, intellectual property rules and trade secrets remain a major barrier to this task.

We call on the U.K. government to support the temporary waiver of intellectual property rules under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to scale up and diversify production of the tools needed to end this pandemic.

We also call on the British government to use all means at its disposal to pressure pharmaceutical companies to share their technology and know-how with the World Health Organization's (WHO) Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and its mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. This way, we can accelerate production and supply in low and middle-income countries and prevent further variants of concern from emerging.

The crisis posed by the Omicron variant is a stark warning of the dangers posed by global vaccine inequality. The pandemic does not stop at the U.K. border. Ensuring global vaccination coverage will help to prevent unnecessary loss of life and avert further variants of concern from emerging, including variants that could potentially render existing vaccines less effective, or variants that confer greater transmissibility or virulence. We urge you to put public health before the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry to prevent another year of uncertainty and tragedy.


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