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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Global Vaccine MNC Monopoly depriving vaccine for Developing World | Soma Sundar

Friday 14 May 2021

by Dr. Soma Sundar M *

A workable solution to Covid pandemic is vaccinat7ng a significant part of the population to break the chain and achieve herd immunity. Otherwise new waves of disease keep appearing taking toll of innumerable human lives. With delayed vaccination, new mutations would keep emerging and no lockdowns can rescue the nation.

Unfortunately vaccine production by two manufacturers i.e. Serum institute and Bharat Biotech is no way close to the daily vaccination requirement of nearly 3.0 lakh doses. At the current rate of vaccination, India can only cover 30% population by end-2021. Present BJP government in power did not heed to advice scientists as early as in February of the looming second wave of pandemic and consequently now stumbling with huge shortages of vaccines across the nation. It did not either plan a strategy and offer stimulus measures to ramp up domestic production or negotiate with foreign vaccine producers for import to fill the vaccine shortages. Amidst the serious pandemic only in the last week of March, after facing serious criticism from various quarters it announced a few economic stimulus to both the domestic manufacturers and appealed to USA to lift the embargo for supply of vaccine raw materials to India. To achieve universal vaccination in India we would need 1878 million doses to vaccinate approximately 939 million adults in the country (assuming 2 doses/person) by the end of 2021. To cut existing shortages country needs to mass-produce not only two available domestic vaccines Covaccin and Covshield but also Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and other available vaccines. But the major global vaccine manufacturing MNCs monopolize the global vaccine production, pricing and distribution around the world. Shortages of Covid-19 vaccines in India and other developing countries is largely due to the monopoly of major vaccine manufacturing multinationals to earn huge profits in times of epidemic. As of mid-January itself, a small group of rich Western countries, comprising just 16% of the world’s population, had already bought up 60% of available vaccine stocks. The extra stocks purchased in advance by uS government runs in to five times to vaccinate it’s population. Now huge pressure is put on US government to release 60 million extra doses of Astrazenca vaccine to India. The major vaccine pharma companies hold patent rights under WTO TRIPPS aggrement (Urugway,1985) and are protected against violators. Of the 2.5 billion vaccine doses that Pfizer plans to produce this year, the company has pledged to send less than 2% of its doses to developing countries. Last week Pfizer and Moderna have agreed to ship 34 million doses at commercial rate but maintained silence on waiver of mRNA IPR and production knowhow. Ongoing world market price is very high and Uganda purchased 1 mln doses of vaccine from Pfizer at uS $ 17 per dose i.e. almost at double the price charged from US Government. The major pharma MNCs are not ready to loose huge profits by sharing IPRs with developing world. Big Pharma company Pfizer Reports Hundreds of Millions in Profits From Covid Vaccine sales. Pfizer made record profits ie. $3.5 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2021,from vaccine it manufactured with German company BioNTech. Pfizer expects the vaccine to garner $26 billion in total revenue, the company said.

As major vaccine producing MNCs are putting huge profits before human life it should be noted that most of these original basic formulations were developed by scientists working in public sector research institutions like NIH (US National Institute of health) transferring original formulations to Pfizer, UK government funded Oxford University to Astrazenca and IVR (Indian virology research institute) and ICMR scientists developed vaccine formulation to Bharat biotech to mass produce and distribute. Having received the original basic formulations, Bharat biotech has escajated per dose to Rs.1200 and dictating prices. Government of India should immediately ask Bharat biotech to share production capabilities for increased production of Covaccin with many public sector vaccine companies that are sitting idle with no orders. They include the Central Research Institute (CRI) in Himachal Pradesh, BCG Vaccine Laboratory (BCGVL), Pasteur Institute of India (PII) and HLL Biotech in Tamil Nadu; Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Limited, Uttar Pradesh; Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, Maharashtra; and Human Biologicals Institute, Telangana. The state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex based in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu has also been lying idle since its inauguration in 2016.

“Developing countries like India, south Africa, Brazil have advanced scientific and technical capacities to mass produce vaccines. In October, 2020 India and S. Africa jointly urged WTO to waive IPR restrictions to manufacture indigenously generic versions of available global vaccines. Various NGOs and mass organizations from Africa and India, U.K and USA such as Peoples Vaccine Alliance, All India Progressive Forum, Indian Doctors for Peace & Development, All India Peoples Science Network, and others appealed to US President to lift sanctions on vaccine raw material supply and help to waive IPRs to facilitate indigenous mass production of vaccines. It is highly appreciable that the US President, European Union, President Putin agreed to support claims to waive IPRs on vaccine production in the forthcoming session of WTO.

In the meanwhile, India can exercise the Indian patent act, section 81 that facilitates indigenous production of a drug under health emergency. In 1985 at the onset of the proposal to Join WTO our government has requested to include section 81 of the Indian patent act, that facilitates indigenous production of a drug in conditions of health emergency. Subsequently, the clause was inserted in to WTO IPR regulations. Now our government should make use of this section 84(1) of the Patents Act 1970 to address present serious shortages of vaccines. Government can waive Intellectual property and indigenously start manufacturing itself or assign to any private manufacturer.

Universal vaccination, free of cost, should be made easily accessible to people from all classes, across regions, seems to be the only way to ensure maximum coverage and meeting the vaccination goals. Vaccines are the best weapon in our fight against COVID pandemic and the government should immediately hold discussions with scientists, public, private vaccine manufacturers, and political parties to discuss and devise a transparent plan for mass production of both indigenous as well as foreign vaccines.

The views expressed in the article private and do not belong to any organization.

(Author: Dr.Soma Sundar M is a Principal Scientist, Genomics division, NBPGR ICAR, New Deli; ssmarl[at]yahoo.com.)

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