At a time when the world is moving towards a waiver on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) on Covid-19 vaccines, Indian state governments are grappling with differential pricing policies of indigenous developers and inequity in distribution by the Centre. A recent tweet by former Union minister and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh encapsulated this conundrum. “Why did Gujarat alone have 60% of all 18-44 age vaccinations on May 2nd?” he asked, pointing to a Press Information Bureau release. On the said day, over 51,000 beneficiaries in the specified age group had been vaccinated in Gujarat as against a mere 527 in Tamil Nadu and 649 in Karnataka. Recently, the Madras High Court intervened in the matter, and asked the Central government to make vaccine distribution to states transparent.
Experts have called for the Centre to adopt a scientific formula with regards to vaccine distribution. Though states have the freedom to purchase vaccines now, the differential pricing and ballooning fiscal deficits have made this unattractive. In this context, will the IP waiver make an impact on the ground? If the US proposal for IP waiver is accepted, vaccines like those produced by Pfizer and Moderna can be manufactured in bulk for middle and low income countries. If they are able to identify multiple manufacturers, theoretically, it would bridge the vaccine shortage across the world, thereby lowering chances of further mutation of the virus.
Countries like Canada, South Korea and Bangladesh have expressed interest in manufacturing vaccines if the patents are waived. Surplus supply will break market monopoly, thereby making vaccines affordable even for state governments. Several influencers in the health policy space are, however, not convinced. Bill Gates, for instance, expressed concern over safety of vaccines if the production was to be handed over to multiple companies. Speaking specifically about India, Gates claimed that vaccine production in India has been made possible only by “grants and expertise” provided by foundations such as his.Naysayers aside, the IP waiver presents India and the world a massive opportunity to contain the pandemic. The global community must waste no time in tedious deliberations. Public good must triumph profiteering.