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Jakarta Post

Indonesia rallies to keep COVID-19 vaccines, drugs affordable

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, May 1, 2020   /   10:03 am
Indonesia rallies to keep COVID-19 vaccines, drugs affordable Drug trial: An engineer shows an experimental vaccine to treat COVID-19 tested at the quality control laboratory of Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing on April 29. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri )

As countries and private institutions rush to produce a viable vaccine for COVID-19, concerns over the possible monopoly of drug patents have sparked an international debate on the need to maintain equitable and affordable access to these solutions.

Indonesia has made it a point to ensure that multilateral efforts are actively pursuing this objective, its top diplomat said, given how strict access to patented drugs can be under existing norms.

“When a vaccine has been developed or the drugs currently undergoing clinical trials have been acquired, the next question to ask is whether all countries have access to these vaccines and medicine at affordable rates,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters in a virtual briefing on Wednesday.

“This is very relevant considering there are international patent regimes that are prone to monopolizing innovations that all mankind needs access to.”

Read also: 'These talks lift my spirit': Jokowi turns to foreign allies to discuss COVID-19 strategy

The novel coronavirus, which surfaced in China late last year, has killed nearly 230,000 people and infected close to 3.2 million worldwide, according to an AFP tally.

Experts have warned that only a vaccine will allow the full reversal of restrictions that have put half of humanity under some form of lockdown.

There are still no proven vaccines or antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19, with most patients only receiving palliative care. But scientists around the world are working on experimental treatments in the hopes of a return to normalcy, despite mounting deaths and deepening economic woes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 120 vaccines being developed worldwide, with six already undergoing clinical trials.

Experts have been quick to point out how the current patent system is not fit for purpose, with suppliers accused of turning a profit by denying access to life-saving medicine.

Read also: Patents vs. the pandemic

But discussions are under way to enable wider access to some patented drugs and medical supplies, said World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) director general Francis Gurry earlier this week.

“The international legal framework does foresee a certain number of flexibilities for countries to be able to deal with [...] health emergencies,” Gurry said, as quoted by Reuters.

He said WIPO was involved in discussions with various parties “to see what might be done in this regard”.

Minister Retno hinted that Indonesia was determined to make good use of such “flexibilities” under WIPO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the latter’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement essentially allows countries during an emergency to grant “compulsory licenses” to companies to produce a patented product.

“[...] The main objective is to provide equitable and affordable access to vaccines for developing countries and least developed countries,” she said.

For all the uncertainty that critics say Indonesia has caused with its COVID-19-related decision making, its foreign service has been decidedly clearer with its intentions.

With more than 10,000 people infected and nearly 800 deaths recorded as of Thursday, the nation stands to benefit from the global rush to find an affordable cure.

Read also: An examination of Indonesia's death toll: Could it be higher?

Retno said Indonesia has been consistently raising the issue of equitable access in various international forums, including at the Ministerial Coordination Group on COVID-19 (MCGC) meeting earlier this week that gathered 12 like-minded nations.

The ministry’s director general for multilateral cooperation, Febrian Ruddyard, argued that equitable access was best served by the multilateral system, where nations stood as equals and vulnerability to the pandemic was a measure for priority access.

“[...] Without the principle of multilateralism, powerful [nations] with large populations would feel entitled to gain early access [to vaccines],” Febrian said in a virtual briefing on Thursday. “This is the moment of truth for the multilateral system to deliver.”

At the MCGC, Minister Retno tabled a proposal to establish a joint platform to share information on production capacities for medical supplies, which is expected to help meet surging demand – including through joint production schemes.

“The Indonesian ambassador in Ottawa [Canada] will lead the discussion on the Indonesian non-paper,” she said.

The government is also participating in the WHO’s Solidarity Trial, a multi-country study to analyze untested COVID-19 treatments in search of viable solutions. As many as 22 hospitals across the country have participated in the trial, Retno said.

Read also: Indonesia interested in joining WHO’s multinational trial for COVID-19 treatments

Indonesia has so far cooperated with nine countries, nine international entities and 76 NGOs to procure medical supplies, including personal protection equipment and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

It is also collaborating with external parties on the development of treatment and vaccines.

The government is keen to tap into WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator scheme, which aims to speed up vaccine development, said Kamapradipta Isnomo, the ministry’s director for international organizations for developing countries.

The initiative will see participating countries pledge a total of 7 billion euros (US$7.66 billion) toward short-, medium- and long- term plans to counter COVID-19.

“This is a scheme we want to access,” Kama said.

Meanwhile, state-owned Indonesian pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma is looking to cooperate with United States-based Gilead Sciences, which has its experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in the final stages of clinical trials.

American scientists hailed on Thursday a potential breakthrough in the remdesivir trials, AFP reported, but experts warned that multiple patents were still in force in most of the world for such treatments, threatening the affordability and supply of the new drugs.

Pharmaceutical holding company PT Bio Farma is also working with the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology and a number of international partners to develop blood plasma to help patients with moderate symptoms.

Bio Farma is also seeking to work with the Bill Gates-backed Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and with Chinese vaccine producer Sinovac Biotech to locally produce a vaccine in Indonesia.