A group of over 170 world leaders and Nobel Prize winners have urged United States President Joe Biden to support a waiver proposing to suspend rules of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to boost global vaccination rates. India and South Africa had moved this proposal at the World Trade Organization in October.

The letter, released to the media on Wednesday, said that the World Trade Organization’s waiver was important to bring an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. It said that the vaccine and related technology should be shared openly which can be done by the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool.

“These actions would expand global manufacturing capacity, unhindered by industry monopolies that are driving the dire supply shortages blocking vaccine access,” the letter said. “Nine in 10 people in most poor countries may well go without a vaccine this year. At this pace, many nations will be left waiting until at least 2024 to achieve mass Covid-19 immunization, despite what the limited, while welcome, COVAX initiative is able to offer.” Covax is a United Nations initiative to provide vaccines to poor countries.

The signatories of the letter include former presidents Francois Hollande Mary Robinson, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Juan Manuel Santos and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ex-prime ministers Helen Clark and Gordon Brown and Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz, Werner Arber, Jean-Marie Lehn, Herta Muller and John O’Keefe.

A man receives a dose of the coronavirus vaccine at the Jabra Hospital for Emergency and Injuries in Sudan's capital Khartoum on March 9, 2021. Sudan is the first in the Middle East and North Africa to receive vaccines through COVAX, a United Nations-led initiative that provides jabs to poor countries. (Image credit: Ebrahim Hamid/ AFP)

The group warned that the intellectual rights and monopoly on Covid-19 vaccines would negatively impact the global inoculations and also affect the United States. “Given artificial global supply shortages, the US economy already risks losing $1.3 trillion [over Rs 97 lakh crore] in GDP this year,” the letter said. “Were the virus left to roam the world, and even if vaccinated, people in the US would continue to be exposed to new viral variants.”

It said by supporting the waiver, the US will be an example of responsible leadership at a time when it is needed the most. “With your leadership, we can ensure Covid-19 vaccine technology is shared with the world,” the letter read. ‘Supporting the emergency waiver of Covid-19 related intellectual property rules will give people around the globe a chance to wake up to a world free from the virus. We need a people’s vaccine.”

India’s second wave makes it more urgent to transfer vaccines: Doctors Without Borders

The Biden administration must take urgent action and begin sharing surplus Covid-19 vaccines to millions of people who have been left out of the global vaccine rollout, said medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontierès, on Wednesday.

According to a calculation by the organisation, Covax is at risk of a shortage of 211 million, or 21.1 crore, vaccine shots in the next three months. This means that the vaccines would reach 60% fewer beneficiaries than initially projected.

The Serum Institute of India was going to supply 40 million, or 4 crore, vaccine doses to Covax but it was delayed because of the second coronavirus wave in India, leading to the rise in vaccine demand in the country, according to the organisation. Further, nearly 20% of countries are yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine, according to the World Health Organization.

In contrast, the US has vaccinated a fifth of its population and has about 1.2 billion, or 120 crore, doses with it. Based on the organisation’s calculations, the US could vaccinate its entire population and still have more than half a billion vaccines left in surplus.

“Vaccinating people in the US alone won’t end this pandemic, and the longer it takes to vaccinate people across the globe, the greater the risk to us all as new variants take hold,” said Dr Carrie Teicher, director of programs at the American branch of the organisation. “The US government has a historic opportunity to help end this pandemic everywhere by transferring its surplus doses to countries that urgently need them.”

“If we’re going to have any chance at achieving equity, doses are needed now,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy advisor at the organisation. “The world cannot afford to wait.”

Shocking imbalance in global distribution of vaccines: WHO chief

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday said there was a “shocking and growing imbalance” in the global distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

“More than 800 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 83% have gone to high-income or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.2%,” the WHO chief said.

Tedros, however, said that this was not surprising as when the human immunodeficiency virus was reported 40 years ago, antiretrovirals were developed, but the world’s poor got access to it after more than a decade. Antiretroviral treatment is the management procedure of HIV that includes multiple drugs to control the infection.

“Covax was created, as you know, almost a year ago to avoid the same thing happening again,” he said.

The WHO chief said that although the initiative has led to the distribution of more than 40 million, or crore, shots to 110 countries, vaccine nationalism, vaccine diplomacy and supply constraints have not allowed it to reach its full potential.

He called for more production of doses, saying that while money is needed, it is only part of the solution. “Money doesn’t help if there are no vaccines to buy,” he said.

Tedros said that some manufacturers have begun sharing the know-how and technologies to produce more vaccines, but it was being done under restrictive conditions and on a very limited basis.

“We must explore every option for increasing production, including voluntary licenses, technology pools, the use of TRIPS [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] flexibilities and the waiver of certain intellectual property provisions,” he said.

The WHO chief pointed out three ways to overcome the problems of Covid-19 vaccine production. He said that companies should share the know-how, intellectual property and data with other qualified vaccine manufacturers, including low-and middle-income countries. Second, he urged countries to strengthen their regulatory capacity bodies to enable them for successfully transferring technologies and market entry of health products.

And third, Tedros called on countries to invest in local vaccine manufacturing. “WHO will continue to provide technical assistance to these companies to build capacity and add additional manufacturing bases across Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” he said.