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Aid agencies ask vaccine cos to drop indemnity demand

MUMBAI :

Humanitarian organizations working in poor and conflict-ridden regions are pressing covid-19 vaccine makers to drop their insistence on indemnity, as they struggle to protect close to 160 million people from the coronavirus pandemic.

Given that these vaccines were developed in a hurry as the virus leapt across the world, many manufacturers demanded—and often obtained—indemnity from various governments, essentially protecting them from claims in case of adverse effects on individuals. This implied the government had to bear the risk of such developments. However, this has posed a problem in countries facing poverty and humanitarian disaster.

Geneva-based Gavi, the leading agency for the Covax facility delivering vaccines to over 100 low- and middle-income countries, has requested manufacturers in the Covax portfolio to lift remaining barriers to humanitarian access to covid-19 vaccines, including the demand for indemnity.

“In instances where humanitarian agencies need access to humanitarian buffer doses and national governments are not involved, manufacturer requirements for indemnification have posed a major hurdle,” a Gavi spokesperson wrote in an email to Mint. The humanitarian buffer is a mechanism within Covax to act as a measure of last resort to ensure access to covid-19 vaccines for high-risk and vulnerable populations in humanitarian settings.

At present, Chinese vaccine makers Clover, Sinovac, Sinopharm, and US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson have agreed to drop the demand for indemnity while supplying vaccines to humanitarian organizations, while others including Pfizer, Moderna and Serum Institute of India (Serum makes the AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines) have not.

“To start, we would like a waiver from all corporations for the users (humanitarian organizations and governments) of the humanitarian buffer. But secondarily, we want the industry to take back their liability responsibility more generally,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccine policy adviser, MSF Access Campaign. MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors without Borders) works in places that qualify for the humanitarian buffer under Covax. These are places that are classified as conflict zones that are controlled by non-state actors.

“With the speed of vaccine development in the pandemic, companies didn’t want to assume indemnity risk and so pushed it on purchasers (government, Covax, etc). Now that these vaccines has been so widely used and some received full FDA checkmark approvals such as Pfizer, it’s time they reassume their responsibilities,” Elder said.

The issue of indemnity has become a sticking point in vaccine supply negotiations in several countries, including India. Pfizer and Moderna did not bring their vaccines to India, as the government refused their demand for indemnity.

There have also been reports by organizations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposing how vaccine makers such as Pfizer bullied countries in Latin America to supply their vaccines by asking for a complete waiver of any responsibility in case of adverse events.

Globally, over 25 countries have signed indemnity and introduced no-fault compensation on their own on behalf of the vaccine companies.

Emails sent to Serum Institute of India, Moderna and Pfizer remained unanswered till press time.

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