The international battle against Covid-19 infections and deaths just received a shot in the arm after the US administration announced it was “waiving intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines.” Temporarily suspending patenting of the vaccines is an important step in increasing global supply and creating a large population of inoculated people resistant to the infection.
There is a long way to go, though. US trade representative Katherine Tai, who made the announcement, warned that that it was unlikely the US decision would result in an immediate ramping up of vaccine supplies, as it needed wider consensus.
The European Union (EU) for one has opposed waiver of patenting. A German government spokeswoman said on Thursday that the “protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation” and she insisted, “the limiting factor in vaccine manufacturing is production capacity and high-quality standards, not patents.” The vaccine companies — Pfizer, AstraZeneca and others — meanwhile in a joint letter written in March to Joe Biden had opposed waiver of IP cover stating it would undermine the confidence of people in vaccine safety while not boosting production in any significant way. These are expected responses from entrepreneurs in search for profits. The patent waiver proposal now moves to the WTO, and it is only if all 164 member countries adopt it, will the proposal be adopted. A single country can exercise veto, though the good news is the EU countries are now willing to discuss the proposal.
Multiply production centers
The rationale of the intellectual property rights waiver is that multiple centers of vaccine production can be started in several middle- and low-income countries. This will ramp up supply exponentially and decentralize distribution. Countries such as South Korea, Canada and Bangladesh, that have big pharma capacities, have shown keen interest in vaccine production as long as they can get patent waiver.
Currently vaccines are being manufactured in a few advanced countries, with limited licensing arrangements for the less developed world, like the AstraZeneca tie-up with Serum Institute of India (SII).
Many advanced countries have shown tendencies to ‘hoard’ supplies rather than share it with the rest of the world. The US’ stockpile of 60 million AstraZeneca shots is a case in point. These vaccines have not been certified for use in the US, nor are they being shared with Covid-19 hotspots.The standard argument in defense of maintaining the patent system is that quality and safety of the vaccines cannot be compromised. It is a specious ‘colonial’ argument that looks upon the less developed countries as incapable of producing vaccines. Dozens of middle and poor nations have advanced pharma manufacturing facilities; and through transfer of technology and licensing terms the vaccine producers - AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer - can ensure quality control and safety norms. Hasn’t it been done by AstraZeneca in India with the Serum Institute?
Appealing for temporary suspension of IP rights, the WHO Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus pointed out on 7 March that “of the 225 million vaccines administered so far, the vast majority have been in a handful of rich and vaccine producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watch and wait.”
Debunking the theory that the poorer nations cannot produce the vaccine, he said: “Just as the yellow fever vaccine is now produced in Dakar, Senegal, an investment in manufacturing could see the same done with Covid-19 vaccines.”
Protecting patents is also the route for high returns. After pharma companies spend billions in research and testing, they want the right of way for revenue and profits. Pfizer’s ‘blockbuster’ drug Lipitor for lowering cholesterol generated a whopping $150 billion in revenues before the patent ran out in 2011.
Imagine the returns on Covid-19 vaccines that are required in 14 billion doses annually to cover the world’s population! Except this cannot be the case as Covid vaccines have been developed as part of huge government research programmes, and have soaked in massive public funds. The Moderna vaccine, which has proven efficacy, emerged directly out of a partnership between Moderna and the US’ federal government funded Graham’s NIH laboratory.
According to the Scientific American, a team led by Dr Barney Graham, provided the essential ingredients for the development of Covid-19 vaccines. The US government also poured in an additional
$10.5 billion into vaccine companies since the pandemic began to speed up research and commercial delivery.
Of the Oxford-University-AstraZeneca investment of around $11.4 billion into its widely used vaccine, government and not-for-profit funds have accounted for one-fourth or around $2.84 billion. The very ‘public’ nature of the Covid vaccine therefore demands that not only should its price be controlled at affordable levels, but that it reaches everyone worldwide. In March, after three months of the vaccine being put to use, the WHO estimated about 225 million had been covered for the first dose — barely three per cent of the world population. Supply and distribution cannot be at this pace if we are to beat off a catastrophe.So far, the COVIDmeter shows 157 million people have been infected and 3.27 million have died. This is not exactly the time to be debating patents!