COVID-19 VACCINES AND PATENTS
On May 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impassioned plea to EU leaders to support India and South Africa’s proposal for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines and medicines around the world. The EU, on the other hand, has resisted India and South Africa’s application for a patent waiver on coronavirus vaccines in order to stimulate global supply. During a pandemic, every country should be able to produce its own vaccines. The effort to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) protection on coronavirus vaccinations is based on this idea.
More than 100 countries, as well as international institutions such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS charity, UNAIDS, have joined the campaign, which was started by India and South Africa. The purpose is to lower the hurdles to developing their own vaccines, especially for low-income countries. The pharmaceutical industry, as well as most high-income countries, are now opposed to the concept. Instead, these governments have committed to sharing more of their own vaccines with low-income countries and to increasing funding for charitable vaccine distribution programmes like COVAX. However, in a surprising and welcome move earlier this month, the United States, Russia and China came out in support of an IP waiver on vaccines.
In the United States, the Biden administration indicated that it will support the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights eliminating intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines (TRIPS). Drug firms reacted angrily to the measure, as one might expect. Furthermore, many disinterested observers condemned support for a TRIPS waiver as meaningless symbolism, claiming that vaccine patents are not the fundamental impediment to the currently stalled drive to make vaccines available worldwide.
Waiving patent protections is certainly no panacea. What is needed most urgently is a massive drive of technology transfer, capacity expansion, and supply line coordination to bring vaccine supply in line with global demand. Dispensing with patents in no way obviates the need for governments to fund and oversee this effort.
Because the United States is the world’s largest market for pharmaceuticals, the significance of the US decision cannot be emphasised. For decades, US governments have collaborated with industry, universities, and other research-intensive nations to develop — and enforce — intellectual property standards, most recently through the World Trade Organization (WTO), where the IP waiver proposal is currently being debated. Even a few months ago, the concept of the US taking such a stance would have been inconceivable. Those countries still holding out, such as Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and European Union member states, must now follow suit.
One of the most serious issues concerning IP waivers is that they give competitors a shortcut to expensive technologies. Companies also claim that IP relief will not speed up vaccine production because materials are in low supply and building capacity from the ground up can take many years.
The virus is currently ravaging India and South America, wreaking havoc on health-care systems and causing untold agony and death. Consider the fact that Australia, which has been successful in suppressing the virus, recently announced it was sticking to plans to keep its borders closed until mid-2022. Criticisms of the TRIPS waiver that focus only on the next few months are therefore short-sighted: this pandemic could well drag on long enough for elimination of patent restrictions to enable new vaccine producers to make a positive difference.
THE PATENT BARGAIN
When we look at the bigger picture, we can find a fundamental misalignment between intellectual property policy design and the policy requirements for effective pandemic response. Although patent law is an important component of a well-designed national innovation system when properly restricted, the way it encourages technological advancement is uniquely unsuited to the emergency conditions of a pandemic or other public health catastrophe. Obtaining a TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccinations and therapies would thus set a positive precedent that governments should use alternative, more direct measures to encourage the development of innovative pharmaceuticals in times of crisis.