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Intellectual Property: How the World Health Organisation is misdirecting itself over vaccine technology

Nigel Morris-Co...

At this week's press conference a question - which appeared to be planted - was asked about the release of intellectual property on vaccines.

Mr Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, who will, with our WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus both had extensive replies on hand, indicating that they were not taken by surprise. There is no criticism of that. However, their replies were focussed on two issues - neither of which were public safety or, ironically, intellectual property.

You can watch and/or read the transcript of the press conference of 7th October here:

The UN Secretary-General made a very specific point that " leadership and power are not aligned. WHO, the whole UN system has shown leadership but we have no power" in relation to intellectual property rights.

That, as it later turned out, is a good thing.

The thrust of both speakers was simple: countries and companies must do more if we hope to achieve the WHO's objectives.

The WHO said " earlier this year WHO set a target for all countries to vaccinate 10% of their populations by the end of September. 56 countries didn't make it through no fault of their own.

Today WHO is launching the strategy to achieve global COVID-19 vaccination by mid 2022. The strategy outlines the road we must all take together to achieve our targets of vaccinating 40% of the population of every country by the end of this year and 70% by the middle of next year.

Achieving these targets will require at least 11,000 million vaccine doses. This is not a supply problem. It is an allocation problem. By the end of September almost 6.5 billion doses had already been administered worldwide.

With global vaccine production now at nearly 1,500 million doses per month there is enough supply to achieve our targets provided they're distributed equitably."

That demonstrates that vaccine production is not the focus - and therefore, to a degree, the question of intellectual property waivers is a red herring. There are more urgent and more important things to deal with when set against the situation as it is today.

Clearly, then, the intellectual property rights issue, which was raised a year ago, is already yesterday's battle. Aside from timing, there is the question of the desirability of intellectual properly waivers.

Dr Ghebreyesus (WHO) put forward simplified arguments raised against the waiver and put forward even more simplified responses. Amongst his responses was that it would be possible to have a waiver limited by time. That is naive in the extreme. One only has to look at open-source science and technology to realise that, while the core product progresses greatly and often with ever more security (often more secure than closed source - see the current problems with Google's Chrome browser for an example) the issue of "forking" is a constant challenge to quality control.

It is ironic that the WHO, which has been very cautious in recognising vaccinations, would so easily set aside the security that properly regulated vaccinations provide, especially as there have been instances of counterfeits of closely controlled products and, even, contamination at at least one authorised plant.

Not all countries recognise all vaccinations by other countries. Indeed, for several months, until October 2021, the UK had a very restricted list of what vaccinations would be accepted as valid on arrival in the UK. At one point, the Astra-Zeneca vaccines produced under licence and in strictly controlled conditions in South Korea and in Thailand were not approved.

The WHO has got it wrong: if there were to be a waiver, then quality control would be impossible. The efficacy of vaccinations could not be verified.

Companies such as Astra-Zeneca have got it right: they are licensing production under strictly controlled conditions. They are also bulk-shipping for local bottling - although as a case in India showed, that is not as reliable as local production.

Dr Ghebreyesus (WHO) said that the companies argued that an IP waiver without technology transfer is pointless and in that he is largely right. That technology transfer is an integral part of ensuring the integrity of the product.

Anyone can make vodka at home: not many can make a product that is both safe and easy to drink.

Why does the WHO imagine that if someone has the recipe to make a vaccine, they can do it themselves?

The WHO is absolutely right that it is imperative that vaccines are available and deployed in great numbers across the world because it is only then that we will see a much greater relaxation of international travel and trade. But the WHO has chosen to pick the wrong fight. It argues that it has a waiver protocol in place and has had for many decades, specifically for "emergencies." Dr Ghebreyesus (WHO) asked, if this isn't an emergency what would be?

But the world is a very different place. Today, hundreds of millions of people are internationally mobile daily - and so is cargo.

That was not the case the best part of a hundred years ago when the protocol was put in place. The travelling public pose a different scale of risk to that at that time; and vaccines can be airlifted anywhere in the world within, depending on departure point, 24 hours of production instead of several weeks all those years ago.

The issue for many countries is not even getting the vaccine: it's distribution and deployment - and that is, often, as much an internal security and/or corruption problem - and often a public education problem - as it is a logistical problem.

In that, the UN Secretary-General is absolutely right. The UN, and the WHO, can offer leadership but it has no power. This is especially in many of the world's conflict areas where, if logic persists, there has already been enormous under-reporting of CoVid-19 infections and deaths where CoVid-19 is a factor.

Yet, that is, in truth, the real problem that must be addressed.

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