Leaders of the world’s largest economies back “voluntary licensing” of COVID-19 vaccine patents, the draft conclusions of a summit show, watering down a US push for waivers and earlier commitments to supply more funds to the World Health Organization.
The draft document, seen by Reuters, lists commitments of G20 nations and other countries and is to be adopted on Friday (21 May) at a Global Health Summit in Rome, one of this year’s major events to coordinate global actions against the pandemic.
The draft, which is still subject to changes, is the result of a compromise among experts from G20 nations which remain divided over the waiving of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.
The Biden administration earlier in May joined India, South Africa and many other developing countries in calling for a temporary waiver of patents for COVID-19 vaccines, in the hope that it would boost production and allow a fairer distribution of shots across the world.
But the European Union and other vaccine-making countries have raised doubts, saying that the removal of US export restrictions on vaccine raw materials, the transfer of know-how and voluntary cooperation among vaccine makers would ensure a much quicker ramping up of global production.
The health summit’s draft conclusions reflect these differing views and make no mention of patent waivers.
G20 leaders are to commit instead to “patent-pooling” which is a less radical measure to encourage the sharing of patents. It is still an “unfriendly” move for pharmaceutical companies, an industry expert said, but far less extreme than a patent waiver.
Under a patent pool, drugmakers decide voluntarily to share licences for the manufacturing of their products in poorer nations. Pools have for instance been used to ease access to HIV drugs in Africa.
The summit’s conclusions stress that G20 leaders commit to promoting “voluntary licensing, technology and knowledge transfer, and patent-pooling”.
Blow to who?
The conclusions may also deal a blow to the WHO and its scheme to accelerate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests across the world.
Global leaders reaffirm their support for the scheme, known as ACT Accelerator, but refrain from clearly committing to fully funding it. They “underline the necessity to close its funding gap with fair burden sharing”, the draft document reads, and they call for the scheme’s “strategic review”.
This represents a major watering down of the initial draft in which leaders explicitly committed for the first time to “fair and full financing” of the scheme.
The original draft, also seen by Reuters, was more influenced by the European Commission which is one of the hosts of the summit, together with the Italian government which holds the G20 presidency this year.
A Commission spokesman declined to comment.
The WHO scheme was launched in April 2020 and is still vastly underfunded. Of the over $34 billion it has been seeking to develop, procure and distribute anti-COVID vaccines and drugs across the world, it is still $19 billion short.
COVAX, which is the pillar of the scheme focused on vaccines, should be used to share vaccines, the draft document says. COVAX was initially conceived to buy shots for poorer nations, but wealthier states’ decisions to prioritise their own populations have contributed to a shortage in less developed countries even for healthcare workers and the most vulnerable.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday the world had reached a situation of “vaccine apartheid”.
“The big problem is a lack of sharing. So the solution is more sharing,” he told a virtual Paris Peace Forum event.
The new version of the summit conclusions also says that the WHO should be “appropriately, sustainably and predictably funded” to prevent and react to future health emergencies.
The original draft was much more ambitious and urged “a fully funded, independent and effective” WHO.
The current funding system of the WHO has been seen as a drag on the UN agency, which relies on regular top-ups from the very countries that it monitors on health preparedness.
A large part of its funding is also coming from private and public actors who decide how the money they give should be spent, reducing WHO’s independence.