The UK government is in talks about a plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents to boost the production of shots in low and middle-income countries, the Guardian can reveal.
The discussions come amid growing calls for Britain and other European countries to follow the US in supporting the proposal put before the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Michael Weinstein, founder of the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), warned that a failure to act swiftly could allow Covid-19 to rip through the world’s poorest countries resulting in a “moral and public health failure” akin to the initial woefully inadequate global response to the Aids pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We waited from 1996 until 2003 to start deploying HIV drugs in the developing world, specifically in Africa,” Weinstein said, referring to how pharmaceutical companies in the US, backed by political allies in the Clinton administration, sued “South Africa to prevent them from having generics, which was scandalous”.
The foundation launched the Vaccinate Our World campaign in the UK this week to urge Britain and the EU to improve vaccine parity across the globe.
Earlier this month, 140 MEPs issued a letter to the European Commission urging it to adopt the proposal for a temporary waiver to address vaccine inequality. Meanwhile, 400 academics, politicians and charities wrote to Boris Johnson urging the prime minister to follow the example of the US.
Weinstein said: “The illusion we can protect ourselves by building walls around rich countries and vaccinate only our own populations – and not other countries currently incubating variants that will attack and break through at some point – does not make sense.”
But, said Weinstein: “The real issue is production and the patents, and the lack of coordination between governments.”
However, Sir Robin Jacob, chair of intellectual property law at University College London, said there was “no evidence” that suspending vaccine patents would lead to more jabs.
“Vaccines are not the same as medicines, especially conventional medicines which you can make in a relatively small factory in vast amounts,” he said. “They are much more complicated. It’s a bit like gardening – you need skills and scientific knowledge, and even then it can go wrong. We have seen production problems from people who know how to make it.”
He added: “There is not the slightest evidence patents are in any way holding up production of the vaccines. There are other problems – the supply chain is complicated … the US has an export ban I gather – but it’s not patents that are in the way.”
Lady Sheehan, who sits on the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, welcomed the fact that Britain was in talks, but stressed: “Time is of the essence. Given what we are seeing in India and the risk to the UK and other countries, with potentially dangerous variants emerging, the government has a moral duty to act to create conditions to ramp up global supply – but also enlightened self-interest should dictate it too.”
The UK government said it provided funding for the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced at cost to low and middle-income countries, at scale and through manufacturing partnerships across the world.
A spokesperson said: “We are engaging with the US and other WTO members constructively on the Trips waiver issue, but we need to act now to expand production and distribution worldwide.”
They said any negotiations in the WTO on a waiver would require unanimous support and could take time, adding: “So while we will constructively engage in the IP [intellectual property] discussions, we must continue to push ahead with action now including voluntary licensing agreements for vaccines and support for Covax [global vaccine-sharing programme].”
An AstraZeneca spokesperson said: “We agree the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. AstraZeneca has risen to the challenge of creating a not-for-profit vaccine that is widely available around the world, and we are proud that our vaccine accounts for 98% of all supplies to Covax.
“We have established 20 supply lines spread across the globe and have shared the IP and knowhow with dozens of partners in order to make this a reality. In fact, our model is similar to what an open IP model could look like.”
However, SII’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, announced on Tuesday that the SII would not be exporting more vaccine doses this year, in a blow to inoculation programmes across Africa and the developing world. Instead, it will prioritise India, which is in the throes of a devastating second wave.
Meanwhile, Covax, the international scheme to ensure equal access to Covid-19 vaccines, is short of 140m doses, largely owing to India’s continued crisis.
“While Covax was established to help lower-income nations the quantities of vaccines have been inadequate and have forced developing countries in Africa and other parts of the world to fend for themselves,” said Dr Penninah Lutung, Africa bureau chief for AHF.
Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.
The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.
The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.
“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.
The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.
Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.
On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.
Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.
A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.
Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.
Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.
Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.
“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”
Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.
Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.
The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.