The US backs waiving vaccine patents. Now what?

US President Joe Biden’s administration said Wednesday it would support the easing of patent rules on Covid-19 vaccines, potentially expanding global supplies, as a devastating wave envelops India and calls grow louder for rich countries to narrow the gap with the developing world.

Biden had promised to support such waivers as a candidate ahead of his election, but had for months agreed to keep them in place, under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, Kevin Liptak writes.

His government relented to pressure Wednesday as members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussed a proposal by India and South Africa from last October to waive patents for both Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. No decision was made but America’s backing could turn the tide on a WTO decision.

“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,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai wrote in a statement.

Some experts say that even with patents waived, much of the developing world doesn’t necessarily have the means to produce vaccines at the scale needed. There is an urgent need to simply share more of the rich world’s vaccines and to transfer technology to help poorer countries manufacture shots further down the line.

While the United States powers ahead with its vaccination program — 32% of its population is now fully inoculated — many poorer nations are struggling to obtain vaccine doses for their elderly and most vulnerable through purchase agreements or COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing initiative, Laura Smith-Spark writes.

India, on the other hand, has fully vaccinated just over 2% of its population, or around 30 million people. It has administered more than 160 million Covid-19 vaccine doses since mid-January but doses are now in short supply for its nearly 1.4 billion people.

India has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, smashing daily records for infection numbers and deaths regularly. CNN’s Clarissa Ward witnessed the devastating impact on health care systems in India on the brink of collapse. Relatives are trying to resuscitate their loved ones in hospitals where overstretched doctors simply can’t give everyone the attention — or the oxygen and ventilators — that they need.

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.

Q: Will waiving vaccine patents help bring the pandemic to an end?

A: Activists and some world leaders argue that doing so is the only way to speed up access to Covid-19 vaccines for developing nations at a time when richer countries have bought up the lion’s share of global supply. But some say what’s really needed is technology transfer.

“It’s not just a matter of intellectual property. It’s also the transfer of know-how,” Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN. “I don’t think there’s clear evidence that a waiver of an intellectual property is going to be the best way for that technology transfer to occur.”

That’s because waiving patents will not work in the same way for vaccines as it has done for drugs, Bollyky said. For example, with HIV drugs, manufacturers were more or less able to reverse-engineer them without much help from the original developer, whereas with vaccines, “it’s really a biological process as much as a product.”

The deal between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India is a successful example of such technology transfer, Bollyky said, where the licensing of intellectual property happened voluntarily. “The question is what can we do to facilitate more deals like the one between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India to have this transfer,” he said.

Still, waiving intellectual property rights will contribute to a global effort to ensure a sustainable, long-term vaccine supply, according to the World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, who said in March that it should be part of a global holistic approach to combating the virus. “We need to pull out all the stops,” he said.

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WHAT’S IMPORTANT TODAY

Data shows Pfizer and Moderna can work against several variants

Vaccine-makers are trying to get out ahead of the new variants. The new mRNA technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer shots makes them easier to adapt to new variants. Here’s what we know.

Pfizer/BioNTech: A study from Qatar found an estimated 89.5% effectiveness against the UK variant of B.1.1.7 two weeks or more after a second dose, the researchers wrote in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was 75% effective against B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa, which is good news, as early real-life data showed that some other vaccines weren’t working against it. Most importantly, the vaccine was more than 97% effective in preventing severe disease or death, they said.

Moderna: This vaccine revs up the immune response against B.1.351 and the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, Moderna said in a statement. The genetic material used as the basis of the vaccines is made in a lab and the sequence is easily tweaked. Moderna tested booster doses of either its current vaccine or a version designed specifically against B.1.351 in 40 people who had already been vaccinated six to eight months before.

Blood tests showed half of these volunteers had a low antibody response against the B.1.351 and P.1 variants before they got the booster shot. Two weeks after the booster, their antibody levels had grown against the so-called wild-type coronavirus — the variant most common around the world — as well as B.1.351 and P.1, Moderna said in the statement.

Nepal’s cases are surging. There’s a worry it could soon mirror India.

Nepal is in the throes of a worrying second wave, with Covid-19 cases skyrocketing, hospitals overwhelmed and the country’s prime minister calling on other nations for assistance. The virus’ rapid spread has raised fears Nepal is teetering on the brink of a crisis just as devastating as India’s — if not worse, Asha Thapa, Julia Hollingsworth and Sophie Joeng report.

“What is happening in India right now is a horrifying preview of Nepal’s future if we cannot contain this latest Covid surge that is claiming more lives by the minute,” said Nepal’s Red Cross chairperson, Dr. Netra Prasad Timsina.

Daily infections in Nepal started rising in mid-April, several weeks after India’s second wave began. Now those cases are rising at an exponential rate, with a seven-fold increase on cases per 100,000 people in just two weeks. Last weekend, 44% of Nepal’s Covid tests came back positive, according to government figures, with more than 8,600 new cases on average being reported daily. Of particular concern is how Nepal’s fragile health system will cope, given it has fewer doctors per capita than India, and a lower vaccination rate than its neighbor.

Meanwhile, at least 19 climbers have been evacuated from an expedition to Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest peak in the world, after four people tested positive for Covid-19 at the base camp. And fears are growing that Covid-19 could complicate climbing season at Mt. Everest.

Some predicted a pandemic baby boom. In the US, it’s been a baby bust.

Americans just aren’t in the mood. The birth rate in the country fell significantly in the last quarter of 2020 — by more than 6% — compared with the same period the year before, in the first sign that the pandemic has been more bust than boom in the baby-making department.

December 2020 is the first month signs of a baby boom might have emerged, being around nine months after lockdowns came into effect. A more detailed breakdown of government birth data also shows the largest decline in births occurred in December, Catherine E. Shoichet writes.

The data confirms what some experts earlier predicted — that fewer births would slow population growth in the country, already hit by the increase in deaths and decrease in immigration.

ON OUR RADAR

  • Up to 10,000 airline passengers at an airport in Sumatra, Indonesia, may have been tested for Covid-19 with reused nasal swabs in a scam that lasted for four months, police say.
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed the B.1.617 coronavirus variant first detected in India as a “variant of interest.” Here’s what that means.
  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has asked China to withdraw 1,000 donated doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, just two days after he got the shot himself. The vaccine isn’t authorized in the country.
  • Hospitals in the Japanese prefecture of Osaka have no more beds available for severe Covid-19 patients, with bed occupancy rates surpassing capacity on Wednesday.
  • New Zealand has suspended quarantine-free travel arrangements for flights from Australia’s most-populous state of New South Wales after an outbreak in Sydney.

TODAY’S TOP TIP

Many countries have been reporting increases in calls to child abuse helplines, as the pandemic has kept kids at home for long periods of time.

In the US, researchers assessed calls and texts to the national child abuse hotline Childhelp from March to May 2020 and compared them to the same period in 2019. The team found a 13.75% increase in total inquiries to the hotline from 2019 to 2020, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday.

Everyone should be on the lookout for signs of child abuse, experts say, not just people in social work, childcare or education. It’s important to report abuse as soon as it is spotted because it can cause permanent damage to developing brain and can contribute to life-long health issues, said Dr. Suzanne Haney, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, in an email.

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