Exclusive: Tony Blair calls for relaxing IP rules for vaccines

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Tony Blair, former U.K. prime minister. Photo by: Cody Glenn / Web Summit / Sportsfile / CC BY

World leaders should be doing more to push for the relaxation of intellectual property rules around vaccines and health technologies, according to former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In an interview with Devex, the U.K. politico — now founder and head of the Institute for Global Change — said the world “can't end up with constraints that had to do with normal times prevailing in what are completely abnormal times.”

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His remarks came just days after high-income countries including the United Kingdom and United States blocked a third attempt, spearheaded by low-income countries at the World Trade Organization, to have intellectual property rules waived for COVID-19 vaccines.

But the world requires a “reposition” around global health security, Blair said, encompassing disease surveillance and data, pandemic preparedness, and research and development, alongside technology — greatly narrowing the time between spotting a disease and creating a vaccine for it.

In the future, the international community will have to “make sure that … the intellectual property around things — whether they're vaccines or therapeutics or antiviral biologics — that are going to change the whole dynamic of a global pandemic, that these things are made freely available,” Blair said. He added that this is a reason the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which funds research on emerging infectious diseases, is so important.

“I can't think of a country — for example — the size of Nigeria is going to want, in future, to be in a situation where they don't have vaccine production capability.”

— Tony Blair, former U.K. prime minister

“One of the conversations that is going to have to be had is with world pharma companies, and how do we protect their commercial interests, which are perfectly legitimate. ... Of course they're going to want to make sure that they're properly compensated,” Blair said. “But how do we do that consistent with understanding this is a moment in time when the world's got to act together?”

Blair, who governed the U.K. between 1997 and 2007, said global cooperation has been lacking throughout the coronavirus pandemic because political leaders looked out for their own countries’ interests first. But he stressed the importance of collective global action, saying high-income countries rapidly donating their excess supply to “the developing world” are working in their own interests too. “If we want to stop the spread of the virus,” he said, “we've got to understand that COVID anywhere is COVID everywhere, potentially.”

In Blair’s opinion, coordination among nations will also be key to solving other global problems — such as the impasse around intellectual property rules.

“If you do this on a coordinated basis, you've got a much better chance of getting a proper outcome, because it's not that these companies don't want to be helpful; it's just that in the end, they're commercial entities,” Blair told Devex. “So you've got to take account of that.” He cited AstraZeneca’s “very cheap” vaccine and pharmaceutical giant Merck partnering with rival company Johnson & Johnson to produce the latter’s COVID-19 vaccine — but emphasized that companies making such gestures must not feel “commercially disadvantaged.”

Blair also repeatedly highlighted the problem of insufficient vaccine supplies, made worse by the spread of COVID-19 variants. “Even if you gave those waivers on intellectual property, the biggest constraint on vaccine production at the moment is production capacity,” he said.

Blair’s Institute for Global Change, which produces policy analysis and advises 15 governments in sub-Saharan Africa, has previously advocated for African countries to increase vaccine manufacturing and distribution on the continent. Despite the current international impasse around intellectual property and technology-sharing, Blair said he believed it is possible.

“I think if we really put our shoulder to the wheel, we can find partnerships between pharma companies and countries who have the potential to do manufacturing capacity. And I can't think of a country — for example — the size of Nigeria is going to want, in future, to be in a situation where they don't have vaccine production capability,” he said. “Whatever other issues that are going to get in the way of that, we should look at resolving them.”

While the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had done “a really good job” during the pandemic, Blair said the continent requires further research capability, data, and production capability.

He added: “The continent of Africa is never going to want to be in the situation again where it’s having to rely on international cooperation in circumstances where … it's very obvious that in a pandemic, every country is going to look at its own interests first.”

The World Health Organization — which has been criticized by some politicians for its performance during the pandemic — could solve some of these problems, Blair said. He said much criticism was “unfair” because of the organization’s structural limitations. “Around things like data and surveillance, it’s only if countries are prepared to give them [power] that they're going to be able to operate effectively,” he said of the United Nations body.

But he added that there “may be a case” for other organizations “that aren't so dependent on the international governance system. … There's room, I think, for public-private partnerships also that can supplant some of the work of the WHO.”

Critics of WHO have also alleged the organization has been too accommodating to China, where the government has stepped up its so-called vaccine diplomacy and which recently announced that using its vaccines would streamline visa processes. While Blair spoke of a “crazy scramble” for vaccines among governments, he said he did not think containing China was a strong motivation for political leaders.

“The predominant thought in the mind of any leader of a country at the moment is, ‘How do I get my people vaccinated?’ Because whenever we think about global cooperation … the absence of it has been a huge problem, [and] the fact is, countries expect their governments to look after them first,” he said. “That's perfectly natural politically.”

Adding to the domestic pressure on leaders is that “COVID is a unique phenomenon,” Blair continued, “in the sense that virtually every major world-changing political event or economic event, in the end, affects a minority of people. ... The thing about COVID-19 is that it affects everyone. There's not a single person virtually on the planet whose life has not been altered in some way by COVID-19.”

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.