Britain and Germany were last night under intense pressure to drop their resistance to proposals that would slash the cost of Covid-19 vaccines, following accusations that an agreement at the G7 summit to fund a billon doses will give the world’s poorest countries “crumbs from the table”.
Aid agencies said rules that protect drug patents from being illegally copied must be waived during the pandemic to accelerate the rollout of vaccines and save lives across the developing world.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa yesterday told G7 leaders in Cornwall that a temporary lifting of Covid-19 vaccine patents was essential to save lives among Africa’s 1.2 billion people.
In what is being seen as a repeat of the row in the 1990s over the high cost of HIV retroviral drugs to African countries, campaigners said countries such as the UK and Germany that play host to successful vaccine makers should support a deal to share patents.
Oxfam warned that a failure to get agreement on waiving vaccine patents to reduce the price of each dose would mean increasing the overall cost to poor countries by at least 10 times.
The US and France have joined more than 100 countries that have demanded the major vaccine makers drop their patent rights to allow the rapid manufacture of vaccine doses at a fraction of the current cost.
President Joe Biden has supported the proposal, which would see Moderna supply vaccine doses at cost to the poorest countries.
But the UK has refused to do the same. A spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the prime minister preferred that individual countries secured low-cost commitments from vaccine suppliers, as the UK did in a deal with AstraZeneca, rather than agree a global deal to lift vaccine patents.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has also rejected the move, saying it would dissuade pharmaceutical firms from investing in drugs and would create “severe complications” for the production of vaccines. German officials have complained that trade barriers imposed by Britain and the US on medical supplies has proved a more significant barrier to the production of vaccines.
Jürgen Trittin, a member of the Green party and former environment minister, told German news agency DW that lifting vaccine patents was not a solution: “The producers have their cooperation partners even in the South. The problem is export hurdles. And these hurdles come from the US and also from the UK … so, I think it’s a little bit of a blame game, a scapegoat game, that Joe Biden is playing here.”
Germany is host to two of the three most successful vaccine developers – Pfizer/BioNTech and CureVac – that produce vaccines with high efficacy rates and, unlike the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, are easy to manufacture. The CureVac vaccine is expected to be cleared by the regulator for use in the next few weeks.
The US company Moderna also uses new mRNA technology adopted by BioNtech/Pfizer and CureVac. The founders of Biontech and Moderna have become multi-billionaires in the last year following the success of the vaccine rollout programme.
Boris Johnson has offered to share 100 million of the 500 million doses purchased by the UK as part of a G7 plan under discussion to distribute 1bn doses to poor countries by the end of the year. The US contribution to the total is 500m doses.
The charity Global Justice Now called the UK’s donations “a PR gimmick” that will allow the G7 to ignore the structural problem of intellectual property rules driving vaccine supply shortages.
It praised Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron for supporting an intellectual property waiver.,
Nick Dearden, the charity’s director, said: “Boris Johnson’s lofty promises to vaccinate the world have today been wiped out like a surfer in Carbis Bay.
“The UK has bought 500m vaccine doses; well beyond what we need. And yet today we’re only offering to give 100m doses to the rest of the world – and only by the middle of next year. It’s little more than a PR gimmick.
“Intellectual property rules are restricting vaccine production to the supply chains of a handful of companies. This weekend, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel can finally step up to the plate, follow Biden’s lead, and clear away these barriers, so we can vaccinate the whole world.”