We recently reached a grim milestone: Five million people around the world have now died of COVID-19. And vaccination rates are not keeping pace with the virus’ global death march, as less than 4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
In the search for solutions, some — including President Biden — have proposed lifting patents on vaccines, so developing countries could make vaccines themselves. But the process is not as simple as a green light at a traffic stop, and there are other barriers and potentially downstream effects to consider.
We asked two experts to weigh in: Should we waive vaccine patents for low-income countries?
Yes: Patent waivers are vital for vaccinating the world against COVID-19
By Harsha Thirumurthy
In January 2021, the leader of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, bluntly warned of “a catastrophic moral failure” as gaping inequalities emerged in global access to COVID-19 vaccines. At the time, nearly 40 million doses had been administered in high-income countries, but only 25 (yes, a mere twenty-five) in low-income countries.
Ten months later, 7 billion doses have been administered worldwide and 3 billion people are fully vaccinated. But the disparities between rich and poor countries have persisted. Less than 4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot, compared to more than 65% of people living in the U.S.
We simply can’t bring an end to the pandemic — here in the U.S. or elsewhere — without rapidly closing the global vaccine gap. And we can’t close that gap without waivers of patent protections that are keeping lower-income countries from manufacturing vaccines themselves.
The topic of patent waivers is always controversial, but they are both essential and fair when used to respond to public health emergencies like COVID-19.
“The topic of patent waivers is always controversial, but they are both essential and fair when used to respond to public health emergencies like COVID-19.”
The U.S. has generously donated millions of vaccine doses to lower-income countries, and promised to donate 500 million additional doses over the next year. But donations like these — by the U.S. and other wealthy nations — are a small fraction of the more than 10 billion doses needed to achieve global vaccination targets.
Similarly, pressure on current manufacturers to expand their production capacity is a painstakingly slow and costly way to increase the vaccine supply. For example, Moderna’s recent announcement that it will build a vaccine manufacturing facility in Africa will not translate into more doses for years to come.
Our best hope for rapidly producing billions more doses and ending the COVID-19 pandemic is for companies that make mRNA vaccines to license their vaccines and share expertise with local manufacturers. A comprehensive intellectual property waiver is what leaders of many countries have been calling for.
Opponents of patent waivers often say the real obstacles to expanding supply are a lack of appropriate facilities and know-how in lower-income countries, or a global shortage of raw materials for making vaccines. But a recent analysis found that with modest investments, prominent companies in countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa are capable of producing billions of doses — at low cost and high quality — if they are able to obtain licenses.
Sure, as an economist, I can see that patent protections may provide incentives for companies to invest in the costly and risky processes of developing medicines and vaccines. But let’s remember the U.S. government played an instrumental role in developing vaccines like the one made by Moderna. As a result, the government has a right — and an obligation — to make vaccines widely available, at low cost.
This is not without precedent: As drugs to treat HIV/AIDS became available over 20 years ago, we faced a similar access crisis. It was only through patent waivers that billions of doses of generic drugs became available in heavily affected African countries. My own research in those countries has documented the dramatic improvement in health and economic well-being that resulted once HIV medications became available.
Last week’s announcement by Merck that it will grant royalty-free licenses for other drug makers to produce the COVID-19 treatment molnupiravir underscores why patent waivers are crucial for ensuring access in the midst of a pandemic. The U.S. government has been paying $700 per treatment course, but with this public health license, millions worldwide could receive treatment for less than $20. To end the COVID-19 pandemic, we need similar waivers that will make vaccinations available, quickly, and affordably.
Dr. Harsha Thirumurthy is an associate professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.
No: Waivers won’t help low-income nations, and would hurt the U.S. economy
By Heath Naquin
It’s easy to search for a quick fix when something goes wrong. It’s our natural response as humans to let emotions cloud our decision making. Fear of the unknown is too much for our brains to grasp, and we’ve spent the better part of two years staring at a daily stream of unknowns — not to mention massive death totals, upended economies, and collapsing health-care systems.
For that reason, I can understand why the Biden administration has supported the idea of waiving intellectual property (IP) rights on key components of the COVID-19 vaccines. After all, if everyone had the recipe to create these vaccines, it would solve our global vaccine equity issues, expedite vaccine development, and finally put an end to the pandemic, right?
Unfortunately, no matter how well-intended this solution may be, it’s a drastic oversimplification that creates more issues than it solves. If companies were to waive their patent protection, vaccinations wouldn’t increase in the developing world, which would still face logistical barriers and lack of resources. More important, such a move will devalue the intellectual economy in the U.S.
“If companies were to waive their patent protection, vaccinations wouldn’t increase in the developing world, which would still face logistical barriers and lack of resources. More importantly, such a move will devalue the intellectual economy in the U.S.”
I’ve spent my entire career analyzing the role of IP as it pertains to economic development. I’ve advised U.S. and international government agencies, played a role in changing IP policies at the country level, and currently help start-up companies in academic networks bring innovations to market. And I believe waiving vaccine patents is one of the most damaging ideas our government has ever proposed.
At a fundamental level, IP allows knowledge to be converted into a business asset. It’s the reason biopharmaceutical companies invest in costly research to discover new drugs, vaccines, and tests — because IP enables them to recoup their investment. IP plays a significant role in the value of a business or research project. Opening IP rights devalues that asset and sends a dangerous message to investors whose financial stake depends on our country’s robust patent protections. Fewer investors means fewer innovative medicines, which will lead to job loss and, eventually, a less healthy society.
But let’s assume the government understands the potential economic and industry ramifications. We’re still glossing over the tremendously complex manufacturing, safety, and distribution issues that will undoubtedly ensue once waivers are issued.
Creating these mRNA vaccines is not like baking a cake. They are based on cutting-edge technology, backed by more than a decade of research conducted by the finest scientists in the world. To scale up an operation in a developing country to these standards would take years of planning and training. And after all that, you’d still need a process to actually vaccinate the public.
Do we really believe this is our best answer? A Hail Mary that may not even help until years after the pandemic has subsided?
Our nation is built on a foundation of innovation. Everything we use, from a golf club to a TV remote, is born from an idea. And while it’s nice to assume that opening our secrets to innovation will solve our vaccine access issue, it’s also naïve.
COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution efforts are building momentum daily. Rather than waste our time on a proposal that would have far-reaching consequences on our nation’s economy, we should invest resources in vaccine education and stay the course with our plans.
While this isn’t a quick fix — it is the only fix. And one that’s certainly worth backing.
Heath Naquin is the vice president of government relations and capital engagement at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia.