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News Article

Waiving COVID-19 Patents: The Dilemma

By Miriam Bello | Fri, 05/07/2021 - 14:48

The debate on temporarily waiving the IP patent protection of the COVID-19 vaccines is once again in the spotlight. Supporters claim that it will help countries fight the deadly virus while opponents warn that it risks weakening innovation.

US President Joe Biden has indicated that his administration would support waiving protection of COVID-19 vaccines. The move was celebrated by some, including Tedros Adhanom, Director of WHO, claiming it qualified it as “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”

Waiving the patent of COVID-19 vaccines is “necessary action to speed the shots to billions in the world,” stated Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative. Tai stressed that the Biden Administration believes strongly in IP protections but “in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.” The initiative to waive patent protection will be formally introduced to the WTO, which will need the support of the 164 member countries to suspend the patents.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has backed the proposal but not everyone has been so welcoming. France and Germany, for example, have vocally expressed their concerns. “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future," said the German federal government. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said that the current issue is not really about intellectual property: “Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow? The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses.”

Concerns about this decision have also come from the pharmaceutical industry. According to the Washington Post, the pharmaceutical industry has said that allowing more manufacturers to begin making shots would spark new competition for limited ingredients, slow down existing production and even lead to counterfeit vaccines. The Guardian also pointed out that “pharmaceutical experts argue that manufacturing bottlenecks and raw material shortages were the bigger hurdle to making more COVID-19 vaccines.”

IP patent regimes are necessary for the promotion of socially desirable innovation, particularly in chronically underfunded areas of science and technology, says an article from the University of Michigan. Patents incentivize R&D by generating a period of exclusivity, during which inventors may exclude competitors from the market and obtain return on their investment.

While Mexico currently does not manufacture COVID-19, the country is supporting pharmaceuticals in packaging them to distribute across the local population.

On the Importance of Vaccines

Unlike some medicines, vaccines have no generic options as they are complex biological drugs whose equivalence cannot be demonstrated by simple tests. Vaccines require complex testing of their full clinical safety and efficacy, or surrogate testing.

Immunization has long been recognized as one of the most cost-effective public health tools, according to WIPO, as early economic research on the benefits of vaccines found that governments saved by using them as they averted later medical costs. A more recent perspective on NCBI further argues that immunization programs produce a range of additional benefits by stimulating economic growth and reducing poverty. This interpretation suggests that the extension of childhood vaccination could yield considerable benefits for developing economies.

The WIPO's report highlights three pivotal benefits of vaccination: an increase in productivity, reduced government spending and herd immunity and reduced antimicrobial resistance.

Miriam Bello Miriam Bello Journalist and Industry Analyst