The bold decision by US President Joe Biden to back the temporary waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines feels like the emergence of light at the end of a long dark tunnel for India and the world.

Following the US decision, France and New Zealand have pledged their support to the waiver. The European Union and several wealthy countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Spain have said that it would be open to discussions and negotiations. There is finally a real hope a breakthrough that can unlock the potential of vaccine production across the developing world.

One cannot but feel proud of India’s role in this historic move: the initial proposal for the waiver was made by the government of India along with South Africa. One hundred and twenty countries have since put their weight behind the proposal.

Why it matters

The virus has killed millions and risks pushing half a billion people into poverty. Immediate rapid deployment of vaccines is essential to reduce suffering and death, alleviate the pressure on the healthcare system and accelerate the re-opening of society. Doing so is not just morally imperative, but time critical. A recent survey by the People’s Vaccine Alliance found that two-thirds of epidemiologists think that we had a year or less before the virus mutates to the extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines are rendered ineffective and new or modified vaccines are required.

The World Health Organisation has rightly asserted that “with a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe”. Delaying vaccine access will also only increase inequality and the social and economic costs of the pandemic.

A vaccine patent waiver combined with a transfer of technology and know-how, will ramp up the scale and speed of vaccine rollout. This is especially critical for India where infections are soaring, vaccines are in short supply, and the country has significant untapped capacity to produce for India’s needs and for the rest of the world. India has produced 21% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines and could do much more. A waiver on intellectual property rights by the World Trade Organisation agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights would allow multiple actors to start production instead of concentrating manufacturing in the hands of a small number of patent holders.

Scaling up manufacturing, especially in developing countries will help us end the current vaccine apartheid. Rich countries representing just 16% of the world’s population have secured half of the leading vaccines. Of the 383 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines administered globally to date, nearly 50% went to just the US, the European Union and UK, which together represent only 11% of the world’s population.

Unfortunately, not all countries are convinced. Germany remains a holdout amidst the wave of statements of support from the rest of the world. This week’s G-7 meeting offered another chance for India to convince Angela Merkel of the value of a Peoples’ Vaccine.

While the wind is changing, much more needs to be done to get a full commitment. The co-sponsors of the proposal has requested the chair of the TRIPS Council to consider holding a meeting open to all members in the second half of May to discuss the revised proposal before the formal TRIPS Council meeting scheduled for early June. This would be followed by negotiations on the text.

The waiver should apply not just to vaccines, but to all Covid-19 related technologies. The world needs not just a temporary lifting of intellectual property rights that can give access to the vaccine recipe, but also support for transfer of technologies (through the World Health Organisation Covid-19 Technology Access pool) and strategic investment in manufacturing across the developing world. The devil is often in the details.

The next few weeks are going to be crucial as the government of India will bring in a revised proposal for discussions in early June at the World Trade Organisation for a waiver on patents and all Covid-19 related technologies. Governments must resist the intense pressure that they will face from the pharmaceutical industry to water down agreements at the World Trade Organisation.

It will be important that negotiating texts are made transparent and public. Any waiver must be for a reasonable period of time, otherwise can be rendered ineffective. The global community must realise that it is time to move forward from protracted discussions and act now to prevent millions from dying by ensuring mass production of people’s vaccine.

A path for India

It is clear that vaccination is the best and most effective way to protect people and end the pandemic across the world. The last few weeks in India have been tragic, with a rapidly rising death toll, but the patent waiver gives a life-line in the possibility of more vaccines, which India requires quickly and in large numbers. It also gives hope in the form of India’s untapped manufacturing capacity.

India is the pharmacy of the world but it has been gasping for breath – we can’t let it be choked by big pharmaceutical corporations’ monopolies and a cynical and sinister approach of profit over life.

Amitabh Behar, Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India, is a global civil society leader, and an authority on tackling economic and gender inequality and building citizen participation.