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Irish pharma lobby criticises Covid vaccine IP waiver but campaigners say drugmakers have 'lost the argument'

Amnesty boss Colm O’Gorman has accused drug companies of ‘reprehensible scaremongering’.

Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated May 6th 2021, 5:23 PM

IRELAND’S MAIN PHARMACEUTICAL industry lobby group has called on the Government to oppose President Joe Biden’s support for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules around Covid-19 vaccines.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai last night announced that the US will remove its objection to a waiver of the 1995 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

“The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines,” Tai said in the statement.

India and South Africa, supported by some 60 other countries, first pushed the idea at the WTO last October.

So far, the proposal has been blocked by the US, the UK, the European Union and Canada.

But the Biden administration’s decision removes a major stumbling block to the waiver, which, if passed by the WTO, will allow drug manufacturers in developing nations to produce their own vaccines without fear of legal reprisal.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also indicated today that the bloc is “ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”

It has been welcomed by human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both members of the ‘Peoples’ Vaccine Alliance’.

But the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA) — the Irish industry body which represents drug companies including vaccine-makers Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — has urged the government to oppose the decision.

“It is a short-sighted and ineffectual decision that puts at risk the hard-won progress in fighting Covid-19,” IPHA Chief Executive Oliver O’Connor said in a statement.

“We are urging the Government to oppose the waiver and to continue to back intellectual property as the formula for the invention of new vaccines, medicines and technologies.”

O’Connor, who served as a special advisor to former Minister for Health Mary Harney, added the waiver ”risks the entry of counterfeit vaccines in the supply chain around the world”.

‘Deeply patronising’

Amnesty Ireland Executive Director Colm O’Gorman, meanwhile, told The Journal that he is “delighted” by the news, describing it as “a huge enormously exciting development”. 

However, he characterised the arguments raised by drug companies in recent weeks as “reprehensible scaremongering” and “deeply patronising” to countries in the Global South.

“India, for example, produces more vaccines than any other country on the planet,” he said.

“India is the world’s pharmacy when it comes to vaccine production. Cuba is also producing vaccines. Countries right across the globe are absolutely perfectly capable of producing vaccines like this.”

O’Gorman said that pharmaceutical companies need to accept that they have “lost the argument” on this subject.

“They need to accept that the intellectual property that they hold has been secured through the injection of billions of public money and that these vaccines must first and foremost be applied for public good,” he said.

“And if that means for a short period of time — a couple of years — they have to accept the waving of intellectual property rights in the interest of protecting public health and human rights ahead of their profits. They just need to get used to that.”

Broad support

O’Gorman also welcomed the Irish Government’s apparent “volte face” on the subject.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly last night tweeted his support for the move, describing it as “a hugely positive development” despite expressing his concerns about the proposal in the Dáil in March.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon in response to questions from Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane TD, Donnelly said that Ireland supports “an acceleration of vaccine production and distribution” around the world but that there is “differing views” about whether a waiver is the best way to do that.

The only question for us is what the right way to do that is. There are differing views as to whether a waiver simply achieves that. It doesn’t identify a lot of the other bottlenecks, as I’m sure the deputy knows the EU has set up a task force to look specifically at what the bottlenecks are so we can accelerate global production and distribution.

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Donnelly said that his own personal view is that the he supports the waiver

“My personal view is I would like to see it supported,” he said.

It’s not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet, but we’ve got to find a way of getting these vaccines right around the world as quickly as possible.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and President Michael D Higgins have also expressed support for the Biden administration’s decision.

“It was a little bit embarrassing for the Irish State that the strong supportive position that Ministers Donnelly and Coveney took in relation to the TRIPS waiver last night occurred less than an hour after the US made their announcement,” said Social Democrats education spokesperson Gary Gannon.

The Dublin Central TD was one of 25 politicians — including TDs and senators from Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, the Green Party and independents — who signed a letter recently calling on the government to back the waiver.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for the US to give us permission to take a moral stand on issues of global injustice, ” Gannon added.

“Regardless, it’s now welcome that the Irish government appears now to be supportive of the TRIPS waiver and we should carry that position all the way to the heart of the European Union.”

Sinn Féin spokesperson on foreign affairs John Brady, who also signed the letter, said today that we can “only applaud” the Biden administration’s decision.

But the Wicklow TD added, “The reality is that Ireland sought and secured election to the United Nations Security Council on the pretext of offering a voice of advocacy for the developing nations of the world.

“And while the Taoiseach claims Ireland has offered moral leadership on the issue of global vaccinations, we have in reality received little but platitude from this coalition government.”

He urged Ireland and the rest of the EU to back the proposal at the WTO.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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