In a historic move, the U.S. government announced it would support the waiver of patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, a move to increase supplies so that people around the world have the chance. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai in a statement.
The move took place on May 5, the first of a two-day session of the General Council of the World Trade Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. So far, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan have blocked efforts by India and South Africa to make generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines legal to manufacture.
Former US presidents of both the Republican and Democratic parties have vigorously defended intellectual property rights, so the move by President Joe Biden’s administration has shocked people on both sides of the debate. “This is a significant change in US public health policy,” said Matthew Kavanagh, a global health researcher at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
Kavanagh is part of the growing chorus of health policy and global health researchers advocating patent waivers as the gap between vaccination rates in rich and poor countries widening day by day. Less than 1% of people in low-income countries have received COVID-19 vaccines. However, researchers are quick to realize that waiving patents that cover all aspects of COVID-19 vaccines would only be the first step in increasing vaccine supplies.
First of three steps
“It’s a one-two-three,” said Rachel Cohen, US director for the Drugs and Neglected Diseases nonprofit in New York City. “First, we need to remove patent barriers, second, we need to transfer knowledge about their manufacture, and step three is a massive investment in production capacity.”
And at the moment, step one is far from over. The World Trade Organization will not negotiate which patents should be adjusted until all member countries have agreed on some kind of waiver. Health analysts speculate that other countries will follow in the footsteps of the United States, although the European Union may persist beyond the end of the meeting. South Africa and India have proposed patent waivers, not just for vaccines, but also for COVID-19-related medical devices, drugs and diagnostic technologies. So far, Tai’s statement only mentions vaccines.
Drug manufacturers and others who oppose the measure say they are foregoing sabotage companies’ huge investments in drug and vaccine development, which is offset by their ability to price products they exclusively own. Patents typically reward pharmaceutical companies by protecting their inventions from generic competition for a limited time – US drug patents typically have a term of 20 years.
Game in the pharmaceutical industry
Pharmaceutical companies aren’t the only opponents of the measure. In an April 25 interview with Sky News, global health philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spoke out against abandoning intellectual property, saying that generic drug makers couldn’t ramp up production quickly and that vaccine quality could be compromised. Following the US government’s announcement of the waiver, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America group issued a statement reiterating these points: “The Biden Administration has taken an unprecedented move that is undermining our global response to the pandemic and threatening security becomes.”
Proponents of the waiver disagree, pointing out that generic drug manufacturers have been supplying the world with high quality vaccines and drugs for years. They point out that taxpayers helped bear the cost of developing several COVID-19 vaccines, so the claim that pharmaceutical companies must reimburse all costs is therefore unfair – especially during a crisis. However, a few other obstacles still need to be addressed, such as: B. ensuring fair distribution.
Cohen says, “These vaccines are an unprecedented triumph for science, but if only 20% or 30% of the world benefits, what is innovation about?”
This article has been reproduced with permission and was first published on May 6, 2021.