Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates has said vaccine formulas shouldn’t be shared with developing nations. During an interview with UK news channel Sky News on Sunday, Gates was asked if it would be useful for IP protections to be lifted and for vaccine formulae to be shared with the world.
Gates flatly replied “No,” before adding:
“There’s only so many vaccine factories in the world. And people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. So moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine from say a J&J (Johnson & Johnson) factory into a factory in India, that…its novel. It’s only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all. The thing that’s holding things back in this case is not intellectual property. There’s not like some idle vaccine factory with regulatory approval that makes magically safe vaccines. You got to do the trials on these things, and every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.”
One wonders if Gates is aware about Bharat’s indigenously developed, tested and approved Covaxin vaccine, which is being used both in Bharat and abroad. Developed by Bharat Biotech in partnership with National Institute of Virology and the Indian Council of Medical Research, Covaxin was approved for emergency use on January 3. Trial results showed the vaccine has an efficacy of 78 per cent and has been found to be effective even against multiple variants of SARS-Cov-2 like the UK strain and the double mutant variant.
As far as we know, Bharat Biotech did not receive any ‘grant or expertise’ from Gates or anyone in the West to develop Covaxin.
The Serum Insitute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, is mass producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine Covishield, for dozens of poor and middle-income countries. While Bharat and China have been exporting vaccines to nations across the world, US and UK had not exported a single vaccine as of March 2021:
Contrary to Bill Gates’ ignorant take, Bharat is very well equipped to manufacture vaccines and other pharmaceutical products. In fact, even the example he gave about ‘inability to move a J&J facility to India’ due to ‘lack of expertise, safe manufacturing process, and regulatory oversight’ is misinformed as Bharat has been chosen as the manufacturing site for the J&J vaccine as part of the first Quad vaccine initiative. The project will be financed by Japan and US, while Australia will use its logistics capability to ship the vaccines to Southeast Asia and Pacific countries.
Ironically, Johnson & Johnson faced a manufacturing hiccup in USA – supply of their Covid-19 vaccine within US was hit after the company suffered production issues at a facility in Baltimore, Maryland. At least 3 US states also temporarily shut down sites administering J&J vaccine shots after adverse reactions were reported. US CDC later said the vaccine was safe.
There is also news that J&J is working to bring a very high capacity plant in Bharat. This shows that both J&J and the US government trust the regulatory mechanism and expertise in Bharat to safely produce vaccines.
The proposal for temporary IP waiver on Covid-19 vaccines was first raised by Barat and South Africa in October 2020 during a discussion at WTO. This proposal is receiving increasing support from the developing world, as vaccination is the most important weapon in the fight against the pandemic which is currently in its second wave in many countries.
The US, UK, and the European Union have remained vocal opponents of this IP waiver proposal, with pharma companies in the West opposing this request claiming ‘it would reduce motivation to invest in pharmaceutical research and innovation’. Washington has also so far not agreed to this request, citing the reason that such a waiver will ‘reduce the safety of vaccines’ globally – the same logic offered by Bill Gates, by the way.
US has also imposed a temporary ban on export of vaccine raw materials. These materials are required by SII for Covishield manufacture and the ban is expected to cause delays in the company’s vaccine delivery schedule. It is believed that these stocks of vaccine raw material are surplus to US needs, and the decision to not supply the same to Bharat was driven by certain Biden advisors who want to ‘hold PM Modi accountable’. Another line of thought is that the US is arm-twisting Bharat in order to sell the Pfizer and J&J vaccine to Bharat; pharma companies were a big contributor to Biden’s election campaign and his inauguration ceremony. Pfizer has also come in for criticism in several countries for its ‘mercantilistic approach‘.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is much lauded in Bharat for its ‘philanthrophic work’ which spans ‘health care, sanitation, gender equality, agricultural development, and financial empowerment’. They work with central and state governments, and NGOs. One hopes that these disparaging comments by Bill Gates on Bharat’s vaccine manufacturing capability, which hint at deep-seated prejudice and Orientalist attitudes, cause some introspection within Bharat about the real intent behind such seeming charity.
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