Brazil’s COVID Vaccine Overreach

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With more than a half million Brazilians dead from COVID-19, the country’s legislators are scrambling to improve vaccine access. But their newest efforts could have unintended consequences for patients.

Legislation & Licenses in Brazil

Brazil’s National Congress is currently weighing changes to a controversial measure known as compulsory licensing. The approach allows a country to override intellectual property protections and manufacture patented medications without the manufacturer’s approval.

While Brazil’s laws already allow compulsory licensing, the legislature’s newest efforts would expand those capabilities. They would also add an unprecedented provision – requiring manufacturers to turn over trade secrets to aid the country’s unauthorized production of a given medication.

That particular measure was omitted September 2 through a partial veto from President Jair Bolsonaro. He also removed bill language that would have allowed compulsory licensing for COVID-related medications and vaccines and would have enabled compulsory licensing to proceed purely through legislative action, without the president’s consent.

But the resulting Law nº 14.200 is now back with the National Congress, whose final decision on which provisions go and which stay could have implications for patients across Brazil in the years to come.

What Compulsory Licensing Means for Patients

While compulsory licensing seems like a promising shortcut, the approach can have several drawbacks for patients.

  • Gaps in logistics & implementation. Compulsory licensing aims to provide quick access to less expensive medication. But history shows that the approach doesn’t always work out as intended.

    For example, Brazilians once waited two years from the time a compulsory license was issued to the time when the medications in question actually became available. In another instance, drugs produced under a compulsory license in Brazil wound up costing 25% more than the original.

  • Distraction from deeper problems. The COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed deep-rooted challenges in Brazil’s health care system. Compulsory licensing does little to address any of them. Usurping intellectual property does not, for example, boost health care spending, improve health care delivery or address the negative impact of high taxes and tariffs on medications.

    Brazil’s policymakers would do well to consider more thoughtful, long-term solutions for their constituents.

  • Reduced access and innovation. Without the promise of patent protections to recoup investment, drug manufacturers may be more cautious about embarking upon new research. In particular, countries that embrace compulsory licensing may get passed over for clinical trials, which can offer cutting-edge treatment to local patients.

    Over the long term, reduced innovation handicaps patients, who find they have fewer cures and treatment options at their disposal.

Policy For the Long Term

Few international events have highlighted the need for medical research and innovation like the COVID-19 pandemic has. As Brazil’s policymakers continue to navigate complex public health challenges, they might consider not only how they can brave this pandemic but also how they can position the nation to serve the needs of patients in all the years that follow.