Patents, Patients & COVID-19

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World leaders are squaring off on a complex topic: whether to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. The so-called “TRIPs wavier,” debated through the World Trade Organization, could have both short- and long-term consequences for patients.

Leaders align on the goal of expanding vaccination globally. While western nations have made steady progress, however, countries such as Brazil and India continue to see COVID-19 deaths rise. Perhaps that’s why India, along with South Africa, is at the forefront of the movement to waive patent rights – a measure the nations’ leaders believe will improve access to vaccines.

The waiver picked up support from U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month, but leaders of Germany, the UK and Canada, among others, reject the proposal.

Policy Considerations

To protect public health both now and in the future, policymakers must consider several issues as they debate the question of waiving patent protections. These include:

  • Faster access to vaccines.
    Permission to override patents does not necessarily mean faster access to vaccines. Making a safe and effective vaccine rapidly and in large quantities takes a lot of time, infrastructure and know-how. Manufacturing capacity is a major consideration too.  Consider, for example, that vaccine-maker Moderna announced early on that it wouldn’t enforce patents on its vaccine, yet no manufacturer has ventured to produce it.Supply issues pose another challenge. Manufacturers in the countries where patents would be waived would have to compete for vaccine supplies and ingredients, which are already in short supply. This could result in unsafe or ineffective vaccines that could actually perpetuate unequal access and make COVID-19 control more difficult worldwide.

  • Future innovation for patients.
    Some experts worry that waiving patent protections could dampen enthusiasm for future investment in new drugs. Developing vaccines is a complex, costly and time-intensive process. Investors and the private sector take on the risk because they have the potential to recoup their investment later. Waiving patent rights can undermine that process, making investors wary.For patients, that could mean fewer innovative medications moving forward.

  • Other options.
    Manufacturers can voluntarily issue licenses for the additional production of their COVID-19 vaccines – and they have.  They can also donate excess doses to regions in need.Policymakers have other options to consider too. To ease supply challenges, policymakers could scale back tariffs and other trade barriers. Easing the flow of ingredients and related supplies could boost the ability of existing manufacturers to provide and distribute vaccines in adequate supply.

Next Steps

President Biden’s decision lends support to the World Trade Organization proposal, but the idea still requires negotiation before ratification. This process is expected to take months, during which the text of the proposal could change given widespread opposition.

Battered by a year of mounting deaths, rampant virus spread and social disruption, nations across the globe are eager for widespread vaccination. Now it’s up to policymakers to determine whether giving desperate nations patent waivers will actually cure what ails them.