4 things to know about intellectual property and COVID-19 vaccines


Key points to remember

  • Some governments, including the United States, are considering a proposed exemption from intellectual property laws for COVID-19 vaccines.

  • But the waiver of intellectual property laws could jeopardize medical innovation, including the development of new or adapted vaccines to combat COVID-19 variants like Omicron.

  • Relinquishing intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines could have ripple effects on innovators and investments across sectors.

The new Omicron variant has highlighted the need for a better comprehensive approach to the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Currently, almost half of the world’s population is fully immunized. Manufacturers are on track to produce a global vaccine surplus by 2022, but despite nearly 40 million vaccines now administered daily, only 6.3% of people in the lowest-income countries have received a vaccine. There is no debate that we need to bridge this gap. But there is debate on How? ‘Or’ What we do, and unfortunately much of this debate centers around intellectual property rights.

Some governments, including the United States, are discussing a World Trade Organization proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) laws – such as patents and trade secrets – for COVID-19 vaccines, suggesting that this would help increase manufacturing and vaccination rates. But it would have significant and unintended consequences and is in fact more likely to harm than to contribute to the pandemic response. This is what this policy would be Actually means for global public health efforts now and in the future.

Intellectual property allows investment and discovery of new cures, and forgoing it would jeopardize innovation, including new / adapted vaccines to fight COVID-19 variants like Omicron.

The available COVID-19 vaccines are the product of decades of investment in research and development – investments that would not have been sustainable without strong IP protections. Strong intellectual property protections offer investors a chance to capitalize on risky and costly efforts, which often fail. If new medical technologies are successful, strict intellectual property laws mean that investors’ end product cannot be stolen or misappropriated, at least for a short time.

If governments start to overturn intellectual property laws, it will become increasingly difficult for companies to invest in new technologies, such as a new drug compound or a new vaccine. After all, 75% of US investment in R&D comes from the private sector. It typically costs a company $ 2.6 billion to get a single new drug from the bench to the bedside. If these new drugs or vaccines have no market value – because no one has the rights to them – they will stay in the lab. We need the industry to orient itself to find solutions to new variants like Omicron and future challenges, and it is therefore essential to maintain transparent and predictable intellectual property laws.

The protection of intellectual property makes possible the collaboration and partnership necessary to increase vaccine production.

The assumption that intellectual property is a barrier to information sharing is wrong. In fact, an effective intellectual property system encourages businesses to trust and work together. This is because intellectual property protection provides the legal basis for turning competitive companies into collaborators. To date, the companies have entered into more than 300 contractual manufacturing partnerships to increase the production and distribution of critical COVID-19 technologies, including vaccines. If governments start tampering with intellectual property laws, it creates uncertainty and actually risks unraveling these existing manufacturing partnerships.

For example, Pfizer and BioNTech have teamed up with Brazilian Eurofarma to manufacture doses of their COVID-19 vaccine for Latin America. AstraZeneca has partnered with Siam Bioscience in Thailand and the Serum Institute of India to also manufacture doses of their COVID-19 vaccine. With such deals, vaccine makers plan to produce 12.5 billion doses by the end of 2021 and an additional 17 billion doses by July 2022.

Intellectual property laws will help us prepare for and respond to future pandemics.

Without IP-based investment in innovation and IP-based collaboration to catalyze that innovation, our ability to tackle the next pandemic would be severely limited. A pandemic is a challenge for the whole of society that requires a response from the whole of society. From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, private sector entities and academia began forging partnerships to pool the skills and resources needed to provide emergency relief, including vaccines.

These partnerships are built on the honesty, fairness and trust inherent in our intellectual property system. A waiver of intellectual property would harm our intellectual property system and, in fact, break that base, leaving stakeholders reluctant to team up in the future. Not to mention that innovators outside of the health sector might view the waiver of intellectual property as a precursor to other government policies that do not respect law and property, further undermining private sector investments in several innovative sectors and technology related to health and safety.

IP waiver talks distract from real solutions needed to improve global immunizations

There are some very real issues that leaders should focus on like removing barriers to trade, alleviating supply chain bottlenecks, and supporting delivery assistance around the world. . They should explore ways to address health worker training and staff shortages, gaps in the “cold chain” needed to transport and store doses, and reluctance to vaccinate.

Recent titles provide proof of this. South Africa recently asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay delivery of additional COVID-19 vaccines due to excess stocks, apparently due to an inability to get vaccinated and to reluctance to vaccine among their population. Namibia has signaled its intention to destroy hundreds of thousands of expired vaccines due to slow adoption. And India plans to use only half of the vaccines it produces in December, as healthcare workers struggle to persuade millions to come back for a second dose. India in particular, but also other countries with superfluous supplies, should allow and facilitate more exports, in particular by fulfilling supply contracts with COVAX, the international vaccine program for the poorest countries.

As US House President and CEO Suzanne Clark said at a recent event, “COVID-19 will not be defeated anywhere until it is defeated everywhere. It is time for world leaders to rally around meaningful public health policy, not misguided policies like waiving intellectual property. Relinquishing intellectual property will not help us end the COVID-19 pandemic. This will further exacerbate our challenges and undermine the extraordinary progress that has been made in ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the authors

Robert grant

Senior Director of International Affairs

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