In the midst of a global pandemic affecting millions of lives, there have been calls for a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. Patents are a form of intellectual property which grant exclusive rights in relation to inventions, including vaccines, which in this case prevent other competing manufacturers from replicating the vaccine developed by powerful ‘Big Pharma’ companies such as Pfizer and Moderna.
Vaccines are paramount in the battle against the virus, yet there still exists a discrepancy between vaccinations required to effectively combat the virus and actual vaccination statistics, especially between high income and low income countries. Only 6% of people in low-income countries have had one dose, whilst numbers for higher income countries look substantially more promising. In an attempt to narrow the gap in vaccine equity, a campaign spearheaded by India and South Africa and supported by the World Health Organization was launched, calling for a temporary suspension of patents regarding COVID-19 vaccines and drugs. Waiving patents would allow other manufacturers to produce the vaccine based on formulations developed by established pharmaceutical companies, thus enabling an increase in supply and, hopefully, lower costs. Though it sounds simple in theory, there are many considerations that must go into this proposal, as there are arguments both in favour and against the waiving of patents of COVID- 19 vaccines.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not to be underestimated. Socially and economically, the impact has been detrimental; COVID-19 is an issue of public health and safety that has been on the forefront of many legal and political agendas. Hence, one of the solutions proposed was a waiving, albeit a temporary one, of patents for COVID-19 vaccines to allow for production by other manufacturers. According to Luke McDonagh at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “IP relief for the duration of the pandemic will kick-start vaccine manufacturing around the world”. This approach has also been considered by the UK Parliament and endorsed by the United States. In an article exploring the benefits and challenges of this approach, Matteo Nioi and Pietro Emanuele Napoli discuss various countries’ positions on temporarily waiving patents, stating, “the thesis supported by Biden states that the waiver of patent protections could allow countries with fewer resources (e.g., Middle Africa) to reduce the price necessary to produce large quantities of vaccine”. If this stands true, waiving patents would increase the supply of vaccines, reduce production costs, and allow for more equal distribution in areas with fewer resources.
Other considerations and alternatives
The arguments against waiving COVID-19 vaccination patents tend to centre around lines of economic efficiency and incentives. Of course, if companies no longer retain exclusive possession and control of their vaccine formulations, they may be less inclined to invest in the research and development of new vaccines due to the high costs of the R&D process which can easily fetch up to billions of dollars. As stated in Nioi and Napoli’s piece, the “liberalisation of vaccines might discourage pharmaceutical companies from investing in new vaccines or their updates in the future”, hence possibly slowing the inventive process of efficient COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, the technologies required to replicate and produce COVID-19 vaccines are specific and not readily available, as they are owned by only a few pharmaceutical companies. Because replicating the vaccine entails tampering with a deadly virus, improper procedure or setup could lead to catastrophic consequences due to the biological risk attached to it, as “without access to all the know-how and parts, a waiver could result in quality, safety and efficacy issues and possibly even counterfeits”. Validating production sites and conducting safety checks take time - time we may not be afforded.
Many countries have opposed the waiving of patents for fear of the response from pharmaceutical companies who “fear they will lose their market share if their competitors are allowed to use their designs”. They argue that there are better alternatives that will be conducive to an improved distribution of vaccines, one of which being the COVAX program, a scheme which “aims to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, and guarantee fair and equitable access for every country”. Despite the initiative being implemented and garnering high hopes for low income countries, the numbers of vaccines promised by donor governments were not always met; for example, the target for 2021 was for two billion doses to be donated, but only 95 million had been delivered by the end of July 2021.
Hence, it is clear that a temporary waive of patents has both benefits and setbacks. Vaccines are undoubtedly key to fighting against the virus, but equity in distribution is a crucial factor that dictates how well this global fight will end during a time that demands more global cooperation and empathy than ever. Some pharmaceutical companies have recognised the necessity of the vaccines; for example, Moderna has promised not to pursue any legal action should their COVID-19 related patent be infringed upon. This topic raises a wider question of intellectual property rights, perhaps one that is even grounded on moral considerations: should life-saving vaccines and pharmaceuticals be patented?