PhRMA says COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver is a 'political stunt,' while advocate argues it doesn't go far enough

Now that the World Trade Organization has relaxed intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines, the question is: Will any developing countries take advantage to produce their own shots?

With wealthy nations discarding expired vaccines and poor countries turning down donations because of a lack of demand, it’s hard to imagine manufacturers in countries such as India and South Africa being motivated to produce jabs.

Nonetheless, South Africa hailed the move, which allows vaccines and their ingredients to be produced without authorization from the patent holder over the next five years.

The South African government also admitted however to the daunting task of gearing up for the manufacture of shots.

“To scale up the production on the continent, further partnerships will be needed including access to know-how and technologies,” the South Africa government said in a statement.

The measure is limited to COVID vaccines. Treatments for those with the virus, such as antibodies and antivirals, are exempt. So too are COVID testing kits.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) blasted the waiver, calling it a “political stunt.”

“The top trade officials from 164 nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland and failed the global population,” PhRMA CEO Stephen Ubl said in a statement. “Rather than focus on real issues affecting public health, like solving supply chain bottlenecks or reducing border tariffs on medicines, they approved an intellectual property waiver on COVID-19 vaccines that won’t help protect people against the virus.”

PhRMA maintains that the industry has already built the capacity to vaccinate “everyone in the world,” as it has produced more than 13 billion shots. 

South Africa and India have led the push for nearly two years. In May of last year—as wealthy nations were under criticism for “vaccine apartheid”—U.S. President Joe Biden tacked on his support. In his statement, PhRMA's Ubl said the group is "severely disappointed" that the administration "helped lead this charge and gave away valuable American technologies to foreign competitors, undermining the millions of American jobs supported by our industry."

While it is a victory of sorts for waiver advocates, it’s a hollow measure, said Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance at Oxfam.

“This is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere,” Lawson said in a statement. “Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives.”