“The IP and patent story is an important one in this pandemic. The vaccine story has been remarkable. The development and approval in less than 15 months of a vaccine does indicate, does it not, that competition and patents are effective?” – Razia Iqbal, BBC
I happened to be listening to NPR yesterday morning, and caught an interview on BBC Newshour between the BBC’s Razia Iqbal and a representative of the African Union, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, who is also co-chair of the African Union COVID-19 Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance.
The discussion was somewhat unique in that the BBC host was at several points defending patent rights and pushing her guest to explain precisely how patents are the problem with respect to the undeniable crisis of insufficient vaccine access in the world’s poorest countries. An excerpted and slightly edited transcript of the interview follows – the full conversation can be heard here.
The interview began when Iqbal asked Alakija what more the G7—which is meeting right now in the United Kingdom—can do to improve access to vaccines:
Alakija: A lot more than they’re doing right now. This is more than a once in a 100-year event. There needs to be a commitment to share vaccines – the rich countries hoarding doses need to understand we’re all in peril.
Iqbal: But the United States in the last few days has talked about sending excess vaccines to India…do you accept there is a shift that has taken place?
Alakija: We’ve been banging this drum for two-and-a-half months so it’s gratifying that someone is listening, but the United States is sending 60 million vaccines—that’s a drop in the ocean. We’re not talking about just sharing vaccines doses either, we’re talking about sharing places in the vaccine queue. Let us have a place up earlier in that queue – we’re ready to pay for our vaccines, we’re not saying give us these things for free, we’re saying allow us to get in line so we can pay and receive the doses that we have ordered. They need to share doses, share places in the queue, and they need to lift patents so that vaccines can be manufactured across the world.
Iqbal: But we spoke yesterday to the head of Gavi [The Vaccine Alliance], Seth Berkley, and he said patents are not the limiting factor – that having the skills and logistical know-how in place could make a difference if the patents were waived, but that would not resolve the issue right now.
Alakija: I would have to strongly disagree with that assertion. Yes, they’re not the immediate solution, absolutely, but this pandemic is not going away. We had COVID-19 last year, what we seem to be moving into now is COVID-21. The scenario is shifting all the time. Patents need to be waived now so that we can prepare. It is about preparedness, not about dealing with this current wave.
Iqbal: Are you saying there are countries in Africa that have both the logistical and technical know-how to transfer the technology and ramp up production? Because that’s what’s required.
Alakija: Absolutely – Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Institute Pasteur in Senegal, there’s tech transfer going on already in South Africa – we have sites across the continent. Gavi is very much about providing vaccines to the poor and needy of the world, so when Africa rises up and says, “well we are 25% of the world in terms of vaccine usage and yet we only produce 1% of the vaccines, we want to produce our own vaccines,” those who are in charge of doling out the charity, as it were, are going to say “well no, we want to continue to dole out charity.” What we are saying is we want partnership, not charity.
Iqbal: But partnerships are taking place? Are you saying there’s that tech know-how for that kind of partnership to emerge in countries in Africa?
Alakija: I am absolutely saying so. Johnson & Johnson is doing it with Aspen [Pharmacare Holdings] in South Africa, there’s the Institute Pasteur in Senegal. To lump the entire continent and say it is not a possibility I think is wrong.
Iqbal: The IP and patent story is an important one in this pandemic. The vaccine story has been remarkable. The development and approval in less than 15 months of a vaccine does indicate, does it not, that competition and patents are effective? And if you take those away, give them up easily, you are then providing a disincentive to scientists to work in the way that they have to produce what we have now?
Alakija: I understand that, but I think we are underestimating how perilous this moment is in time. I really do. It is only those that are living that can share profits. So, this is about a disincentive because people’s profits might dwindle; we are at a perilous moment in time in which we need to get vaccines across the world as quickly as possible, not just in the next 3-6 months but potentially for the next two years. We cannot be arguing about patents and whether companies are going to lose profits when we have lives at stake. There is a moral imperative, there is an economic imperative—the World Bank has told us for every month of delay, for instance of vaccination of Africa, it is costing $13.8 billion in loss of GDP.
Iqbal: Do you think it’s imperative for leaders to say our dependence on COVAX [an inititative of Gavi, the World Health Organization and CEPI] has to stop now, and we need to think outside of the perception that the begging bowl culture has to end and this has to be a moment where things are done differently?
Alakija: The dependence on COVAX has stopped because they’re unable to deliver, through no fault of their own. The [COVAX] model was brilliant in concept but lacking in vision to my mind; if there had been a more inclusive design phase of this and someone had asked the leaders of Africa “what would you like?”, they would have changed one word – “supplement.” Supplement, if you want to, what we’re going to do, as opposed to “we will provide”. [Instead, the model should be]: “We will add on as needs be, because there might be a need.” That’s partnership.
The issue of waiver for IP rights relating to COVID-19 technology is a contentious one on which IPWatchdog has published many perspectives. The U.S. government announced yesterday that it will back the proposal made by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization to suspend IP rights under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, though many industry groups and members of Congress have spoken out against the proposal, warning that it would impede progress on vaccine and other critical COVID-19 related technology.
Mainstream narratives and the louder voices in Congress – and now, the Administration – typically favor the proposal as part of an emergency solution to an unprecedented situation. But despite this, Iqbal’s questions indicate that what many in IP circles have been saying for some time—that simply mandating compulsory licenses or waiving IP rights altogether is a short-sighted solution that will not fix the core problems—may be slowly trickling down to a wider audience.
At the same time, Alakija makes a number of good points too, and the IP community needs to directly and genuinely address them to make its position clearer and more palatable to the international community during this crisis.