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US backs ‘historic’ COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver, India deaths skyrocket

Move comes as rich nations face accusations of hoarding vaccines

SAMAA | - Posted: May 6, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
Posted: May 6, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago

Activists rally on the National Mall in support of global access to COVID-19 vaccines on May 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

The United States threw its weight behind a waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines as India Thursday posted record deaths and infections from a catastrophic wave swamping the country.

Rich nations have faced accusations of hoarding shots while poor countries struggle to get inoculation programs off the ground, with the virus surging across the developing world in contrast to the easing of restrictions in Europe and the United States.

Under intense pressure to ease protections for vaccine manufacturers, Washington’s Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Wednesday the country “supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines”.

“The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.

WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the “historic” move and said it marked “a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19”.

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — who has previously voiced reluctance to waive patents — said Thursday the bloc was ready to discuss the US proposal to do so. 

EU governments lined up to weigh in, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying he was “absolutely in favour” of a global waiver, while Germany said it was open to discussing the proposal. 

But the move is opposed by a consortium of big pharmaceutical companies, which described the decision as “disappointing” and warned it could hamper innovation.

Shares in Asia-listed vaccine makers — including Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, CanSino Biologics and JCR Pharmaceutical sinking — tumbled Thursday after the US announcement. 

The move “probably isn’t great news for the vaccine manufacturers who will now face generic copies of their vaccine”, said Olivier d’Assier, head of APAC applied research at Qontigo GmbH.

‘Prepare for new waves’

India has been leading the fight to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines, as it faces a surge that has seen patients die in streets outside hospitals due to bed and medical oxygen shortages.

The country on Thursday reported almost 4,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 412,000 infections — both new records — dashing hopes that the catastrophic recent surge may have been easing following several days of falling case numbers.

A top Indian official Wednesday warned that the worst could still be to come, describing a third wave as “inevitable given the high levels of circulating virus” and saying the country badly needs more oxygen from other countries.

“We should prepare for new waves,” said K Vijay Raghavan, the Indian government’s principal scientific advisor.

Consignments of oxygen and equipment have been arriving from the United States, France, Britain, Russia and other countries in recent days, but another official said India will need even more to fight the surge until numbers stabilize.

“If we could get more oxygen more lives would be saved,” the top government official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Global surge in infections

Also seeing rising coronavirus cases is Egypt, which announced a partial shutdown of malls and restaurants and called off festivities for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr to curb the spread.

The country has now recorded nearly 232,000 cases including more than 13,000 deaths, with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli saying it was in a “third wave”. 

He said about 1.7 million people had been fined in recent months for not wearing face masks and that hundreds of thousands of shishas (water pipes) had been seized from cafes that breached Covid regulations.

Eid celebrations are also due to be disrupted in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where new rules in the capital Kuala Lumpur will see only essential businesses allowed to operate and restaurant dining-in banned after daily cases topped 3,000 in recent days.

Authorities were similarly moving to stem a cluster in the Australian city of Sydney on Thursday, where two new infections sparked a hunt for the source of its first local Covid-19 cases in more than a month.

Joining India in breaking records for Covid-19 deaths this week was Argentina, which recorded 633 deaths in 24 hours on Wednesday despite stepped-up measures to reduce the movement of people across the country.

But in the sports world, there was hope for the Summer Games in Tokyo as Pfizer/BioNTech said they would supply vaccines for athletes. 

The firms said they would coordinate with national sporting bodies to make sure that coronavirus vaccines are available to anyone who needs one before travelling to Japan.

Deliveries are expected to be rolled out at the end of May, “with the aim to ensure participating delegations receive second doses ahead of arrivals in Tokyo,” the firms said in a statement.

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