Why Prince Harry's Broadside on Vaccines May Not Convince U.K. Government

Prince Harry's signature of an open letter calling on world governments to waive intellectual property (IP) rights rules to allow a pooling of knowledge and mass COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing may not have the impact he hoped for in the U.K.

The British government believes that waiving IP rights would solve a problem which no longer exists, citing, in a research paper published by the House of Common's Library in January, the World Health Organization's own statement that there is already "sufficient vaccine from a supply perspective to achieve global vaccination targets."

Harry signed his name to a letter published by the People's Vaccine Alliance which criticized the U.K government's decision not to waive IP rights rules, along with over 130 public figures, including Meghan Markle.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Vax
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle both signed the People's Vaccine Alliance letter urging world governments to continue the push for vaccine equality. Photographed at the Global Citizen Live event, September 25 2021. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

The letter forms an open attack against the U.K and Swiss governments as well as the European Union for their stances on enforcing intellectual property rights rules on COVID-19 vaccine development and products.

This is seen by the People's Vaccine Alliance as directly obstructing the WHO goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the world's population by mid-2022.

A section from the letter reads: "The European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland continue to block the lifting of intellectual property rules which would enable the redistribution and scale-up of COVID-19 vaccines, test and treatment manufacturing in the global south.

"The transfer of largely publicly funded vaccine technology and know-how from pharmaceutical corporations would fast track production to a matter of months. Yet still today, a handful of these corporations retain the power to dictate vaccine supply, distribution and price—and the power to decide who lives and who dies."

The letter may not have the desired effect in the U.K as the government appears intent on standing firm in upholding its IP rights laws.

In a January 2022 official parliamentary written response relating to why the U.K government was opposed to waiving IP rights, Conservative Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon stated that doing so could potentially harm the quality of British manufacturing and stunt its innovation.

It read: "There is no evidence that an IP waiver would help us to meet this goal. The reality is that the proposal for a [...] waiver would dismantle the very framework that helped to produce COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented pace.

"More worryingly, the waiver proposal could lead to a dangerous reduction in the quality of products being manufactured and in the already limited supply of key raw materials. This risks compromising vaccine efficacy and patient safety."

The research paper titled "Waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines"—published by the House of Common's Library to summarize the U.K government's position—examined the effectiveness of a potential three-year waiver on IP rights that was proposed at the World Trade Organization in 2020.

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In addition to the WHO's statement regarding an already sufficient vaccine manufacturing capacity, the research paper lists the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) findings that a shortage of trained medical professionals to administer the inoculations and insufficient cooling facilities for the supplies are among the challenges now facing the world vaccine rollout.

The People's Vaccine letter was published to mark the second anniversary of the WHO's announcement that the COVID-19 outbreak had officially become a pandemic.

The letter exercised an open call to world governments to take five urgent steps to help bring a swift end to the pandemic. These include; implementing a global roadmap in how to vaccinate the WHO target of 70 percent of the population by mid-2022, suspending IP rights rules in relation to COVID-19 products and investing in vaccine manufacturing.

A key concern of the People's Vaccine Alliance is vaccine inequality which has been highlighted in poorer nations where the vaccine rollouts have been less effective. The alliance hopes to help address this by recommending that world governments "scale up sustainable investment in public health systems to ensure that low- and middle-income country governments have adequate resources to get shots into arms and save lives."

In response to the letter, a government spokesperson has told Newsweek: "The U.K. has been a world leader in ensuring developing countries can access vaccines, delivering 34.5 million vaccine doses to countries in need, with a further 10 million shortly to be allocated and shipped.

"We remain committed to equitable access and have engaged in discussions on intellectual property at the World Trade Organisation. A fit for purpose IP system has been crucial in supporting the rapid development of new vaccines, and ensuring the framework retains its ability to continue doing this is essential."

Harry and Meghan have been among the most vocal royal advocates for vaccination programs and equality. In 2021, the couple spoke at the "Vax-Live" concert and also drew attention to the issue in their speech at the Global Citizen Live event that same year.