Freedom day: UK “shooting ourselves in the foot” by upholding vaccine patents

Freedom day: UK “shooting ourselves in the foot” by upholding vaccine patents

Date: 19 July 2021
Campaigns: Pharma

  • Just 1% of people in low-income countries have received a Covid-19 vaccine, risking virus mutations that could lead to further lockdowns

Campaigners and scientists have warned that upholding intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments risks a return to lockdowns after coronavirus restrictions are eased today.

Allowing the virus to spread in low-and-middle-income countries with low vaccination rates risks “producing variants instead of vaccines”, scientists warn, which campaigners say could send the UK’s vaccine programme “right back to square one”.

Two-thirds of epidemiologists at world-leading institutions have warned that allowing coronavirus to spread in poorer countries could render our current vaccines ineffective within a year. Just 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to Oxford University.

Nine months ago, India and South Africa proposed to waive intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments at the World Trade Organisation, which would allow low-and-middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines.

More than 130 countries now support the waiver, including the United States and France. But Germany and the United Kingdom have blocked the proposal so far.

Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, said:

“There will be no so-called ‘freedom day’ for most of the world, who may wait 57 years to receive Covid-19 vaccines at present rates. And with the virus spreading unabated in low-and-middle-income countries, new variants could threaten the UK’s vaccine programme, sending us right back to square one.

“If the government wants to make this unlocking irreversible, they should stop blocking global efforts to scale up vaccine production by waiving intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines. Patents are the biggest blocker to global vaccination. By upholding them at all costs, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrew’s and member of the SAGE subcommittee on behavioural science, said:

“We need urgent action to allow poorer countries to produce their own safe, effective vaccines for their populations by waiving patents. That would be a truly remarkable gift to the world. It would help increase our standing in the world at a time when we so badly need trading partners. And ultimately it is the only means of consigning Covid to history and so ending the threat of further lockdowns for good”.

Christina Pagel, Professor of operational research at University College London and a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, said:

“The government is banking on the UK’s relatively advanced vaccine rollout to provide protection against Covid-19 after July 19. But vaccines can only protect us for so long, while the pandemic rages on in low and middle-income countries, spreading among the billions of unvaccinated people. 

“Each new infection risks developing new variants of Covid-19 that are more virulent or resistant to our current vaccines. If that happens, our entire vaccination programme could be derailed making further coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns all but inevitable.

“The threat here is simple. Global vaccination rates are low because intellectual property rules have restricted vaccine production to a handful of companies, limiting overall supplies. By not making doses as quickly as we could be around the world, we risk producing variants instead of vaccines.

“If the government wants to prevent further lockdowns, they should clear away every barrier to vaccine production. That means waiving patents on vaccines and treatments and encouraging pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine blueprints.

“Remember that the research and development of these vaccines have been funded by taxpayers. But we are threatening the security of our vaccination programme to protect pharmaceutical companies’ patents. That should shock and appal the British public.”

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Photo: Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)