Patents for COVID-19 vaccines slow global supply, raise risk of new variants, advocates say
WHO data suggests richer countries have so far received 87 per cent of doses globally
Waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines would remove "a legal hurdle" to companies and developing countries producing the shots and fixing a global supply problem, says an advocate with Oxfam Canada.
"It allows them to produce it without having to worry about being taken to court or having other kinds of financial or punitive measures lobbied at them for infringing patents," said Siham Rayale, Oxfam Canada's policy and advocacy lead on humanitarian and refugee issues.
Oxfam is among organizations supporting India and South Africa's call for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend patents and intellectual property (IP) rules on vaccines, for the course of the pandemic.
Data from the World Health Organization, released earlier this month, suggests richer countries have so far received 87 per cent of COVID-19 vaccines, with low-income countries receiving just 0.2 per cent.
That waiver would allow countries to "rapidly scale up vaccine manufacturing and production," Rayale told The Current's Matt Galloway.
The call to suspend the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement is backed by dozens of developing countries, but has not received support from some G7 countries since it was initially proposed last October.
With another meeting about the issue scheduled for this week, a group of 170 former heads of state and Nobel laureates wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden this month, urging him to waive U.S. intellectual property rules and support the proposal at the WTO. The White house said Tuesday that a decision has not been reached.
In Canada, the federal government insists it "has not rejected the waiver proposal," but still has questions, and is committed to finding "consensus-based solutions."
Speaking to The Current in February, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said he didn't believe an IP waiver would solve the supply problem.
"It's about these factories being exactly right and passing strict regulatory review," said Gates, who has donated $1.75 billion to the fight against COVID-19.
"There are very few high quality vaccine factories in the world. And IP is not the issue."
Rayale disagreed, saying "you don't have to go far to look for manufacturing capacity to be able to produce vaccines, particularly in the global south."
She said there are facilities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Egypt that are already producing other vaccines and could pivot to COVID-19 shot production.
South Africa has already provided details of these and other options to the WTO, she said.
"All it takes is investment in existing infrastructure that can be repurposed to make COVID-19 vaccines," she said.
She also dismissed the argument that removing IP protection would discourage companies from investing in vaccines, reiterating that the waiver is temporary.
Several companies also received billions in public money to develop COVID-19 vaccines, she added, but much of the profits will go to company shareholders, not back to the public purse.
Removing protection will hamper collaboration: expert
Andrei Iancu, the former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, argued that removing patent protection "would slow down vaccine distribution."
Patents have allowed companies to enter into international collaborations in developing and producing vaccines, said Iancu, a partner at the law firm Irell & Manella, in California.
"Major competitors are collaborating: Johnson & Johnson and Merck, Pfizer and Novartis," he told Galloway.
"Without IP, these companies would be much more reluctant to enter into these collaboration agreements."
Under TRIPS, signatory countries can issue compulsory licences that allow someone else to produce patented products, if it's deemed necessary to the public interest, Iancu said.
He argued countries aren't issuing those licences because the vaccines aren't easy to produce without the input of the original manufacturer.
He also warned that without protection, companies "retreat into their trade-secrets shells," which slows progress via a lack of collaboration.
Iancu noted that roughly 10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be produced by the end of the year.
"Before disrupting this incredibly complex intellectual property system … we need to be really sure that we know exactly what we're doing here and we have the evidence that A, it's necessary and B, it actually will solve the problems," he said.
Export restrictions slowing distribution
Removing patents and IP protections won't solve the vaccine supply problem on its own, said Gian Gandhi of UNICEF, who acts as coordinator for COVAX, the global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines
"It's not really a patent issue that's stopping the scale of production, but actually forms of vaccine nationalism either to keep vaccines within borders, or to keep the components necessary for producing them within borders," he told Galloway.
The E.U., the U.S. and India have all imposed export restrictions on vaccines, as they try to manage low supply and rising outbreaks on their own territory.
That's hampered the efforts of COVAX. An analysis in the Guardian last week found only a fifth of AstraZeneca doses promised by COVAX to developing countries by May have been delivered; some countries have received none at all.
Until every country in the world has a high vaccination rate, the virus has the opportunity "to both replicate and frankly mutate," Gandhi said.
"Even a fully vaccinated population in a high-income country may be at risk from variants that evade the current vaccines," he said.
"Increasing the levels of coverage in developing countries makes sense both abroad, but certainly at home for the wealthier countries."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Kate Cornick and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.
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