COVID-19 vaccine access: UK politicians call for IP waiver

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
A health professional participates in a vaccination campaign in Lima, Peru. Photo by: Minsa / Handout / Latin America News Agency / REUTERS

LONDON — Politicians in the United Kingdom are calling on the government to demand changes to intellectual property rules to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments around the world.

As the prospect of a vaccine against coronavirus draws closer, concerns have been mounting among health campaigners that pharmaceutical giants will prioritize profit, and that higher-income countries will prioritize their own populations, making it harder for lower-income countries with smaller budgets to access products.

The U.K. government has spent nearly £1 billion ($1.3 billion) on research for COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccines since the pandemic began and has contributed £548 million to the COVAX Facility to help lower-income countries access vaccine candidates.

But speaking in a parliamentary debate Thursday, politicians said more needed to be done. “As things currently stand, we are running a serious risk that by 2022, we will inhabit a two-tier planet in terms of the pandemic response,” said Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat chief whip.

She added: “There is a limited number of candidates being manufactured by a small handful of companies only and between them, the capacity to produce dosages required at a global level is not there. … Almost inevitably, it's the less affluent nations and the most vulnerable countries who are crowded out.”

“The U.K. finds itself in a unique moment in time, when we can reposition ourselves as a global leader for good.” 

— Sarah Champion, chair, International Development Committee

Chamberlain highlighted how the U.S. bought most of the world’s supply of remdesivir over the summer, with the remainder available at $2,340 for a short course of treatment. Pharmaceutical company Gilead has insisted it will sell the treatment to lower-income countries for a cheaper amount, potentially through generic manufacturers.

But to ensure equality of access for such treatments, Chamberlain said, “one important step the U.K. government could take is working through international institutions to help encourage reform of the patent system given the exceptional circumstances of this pandemic.”

She highlighted World Trade Organization rules that allow governments to override monopolies for public health purposes, as already done by Germany, Australia, and Canada. The U.K. should also engage with South African and Indian proposals for intellectual property monopolies to be waived on COVID-19 products, Chamberlain added.

Some pharmaceutical companies have pledged not to profit from the vaccines they develop while the pandemic is ongoing. These include AstraZeneca, which is developing one of the most promising vaccine candidates with scientists at the University of Oxford. But citing a report by NGO STOPAIDS, Chamberlain said AstraZeneca, which received public funding to develop the vaccine, would “have the ability to determine the future price” from July next year.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson also recently drew praise for an agreement with South African company Aspen Pharmacare to produce its COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in Africa, if successful. But some campaigners say stronger controls are needed than promises from individual companies.

Her sentiments were echoed by Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, a group of politicians that scrutinizes U.K. development policy. “The U.K. finds itself in a unique moment in time, when we can reposition ourselves as a global leader for good,” Champion said. “The soft power gained by doing the right thing for the very poorest in the world and standing up to those looking to profit from other people’s misery will be immeasurable.”

She asked the government to support the proposed waiver of all intellectual property monopolies on COVID-19 products, to champion legal safeguards to override patent monopolies for public health reasons, and to outline what financial transparency conditions were made in contracts for vaccine research and development.

Wendy Morton, minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, defended the government's record and voiced support for current rules on intellectual property rights.

“Intellectual property rights provide incentives to create and commercialize new inventions, such as life-changing vaccines. They keep innovators innovating, creators creating, and investors investing,” Morton said. “And the U.K. believes that a robust and fair intellectual property system is a key part of the innovation framework that allows economies to grow.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.