In 2020, the world was beset by a deadly new coronavirus. In 2021, the scientific community has counterbalanced its arsenal of innovations, successfully testing, producing and distributing billions of doses of highly effective vaccines. While most people are grateful for the fruits of this awe-inspiring and life-saving confluence of expertise, ability, and determination, others describe the underlying ecosystem as pernicious and predatory, and seek to destroy it.
The emergence of Omicron has reminded us that the battle against COVID-19 is far from over and that falling vaccination rates around the world are humanity’s greatest vulnerability. He also rekindled a lie, fact-hungry tale that patents and other forms of intellectual property are to blame for low vaccination rates.
Earlier this year, the governments of India and South Africa proposed waiving the obligations of members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to protect certain patents, copyrights and trade secrets. Specifically, the waiver of the obligations identified in the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) would apply to “health products and technologies, including diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines, vaccines, medical devices, personal protective equipment, their materials or components, and their methods and means of manufacture for the prevention, treatment or containment of COVID-19. ”
The waiver proposal was joined by the governments of 60 mostly developing countries, while the UK, EU and a few other members openly opposed the idea. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has abandoned the traditional US stance of supporting intellectual property protections in international forums. Offering what was apparently intended to justify the administration’s qualified support for a waiver, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai wrote: 19 vaccines. But it is not entirely clear what to think of the inconsistency of this position.
Despite all the exceptions built into the TRIPS Agreement that allow compulsory licenses, other flexibilities, and virtually all measures deemed necessary by governments to protect public health, the proposal implies that intellectual property protections are significant obstacles. to getting blows in the arms. They are not. The real obstacles include persistent trade barriers, shortages of raw materials, limited production and distribution capacity, and widespread global reluctance towards vaccines.
In October, the WTO published a document entitled “The global vaccination raceWhich identifies many obvious regulatory and trade barriers that must be overcome to deliver vaccines across borders. None of the issues identified in this document relate to the protection of intellectual property. A separate WTO report released in October titled “COVID-19 vaccine production and vaccine input tariffsExplains in detail the preponderance of tariffs on vaccine ingredients, vials, bags, filters, vials and other components necessary for the production and distribution of vaccines. The report identifies numerous “bottlenecks” (defined as tariffs of at least 5%) affecting 13 different categories of vaccine inputs and concludes that 23 of the 27 major vaccine-producing countries have at least five points. strangulation.
It should be noted that India and South Africa are home to significant generic pharmaceutical industries, which explains their long history and interest in weakening IP protections. South Africa is not among the 27 main producers (in production value) identified in the WTO report, but India is. And India is tied with two other countries for the most number of choke points (13 out of 13), which may help explain why the waiver proposal is silent on these obvious obstacles to production and distribution. vaccine distribution.
A waiver of intellectual property is not the solution to a problem related to trade barriers, limited production capacity and a lack of professional expertise in the production and handling of mRNA-based vaccines. But as reported in the New York Times the biggest culprit today may be reluctance to vaccinate. Last week, the South African government asked US biopharmaceutical companies to halt scheduled vaccine deliveries because it already had more doses than it could use: “[A]about 16 million in a country of 60 million.
A recent Axes article concludes that “[I]It is becoming increasingly clear that for a number of developing countries, administering doses can be almost as difficult as obtaining them. The article quotes this analysis from the COVID Global Accountability Platform, which concludes that half of the 92 low-income countries supported by COVAX used less than 75% of the doses they received.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy and trade protectionism, not scapegoating intellectual property, should be priorities in the fight against the pandemic. The wide divergence in vaccination rates around the world is a serious problem that demands an equally serious solution. The extent of the virus’s mutation and transmissibility, especially among the unvaccinated, means that people living in countries with high vaccination rates will remain vulnerable to the new variants until people around the world reach high levels. much higher inoculation or immunity levels.
Meanwhile, rich countries have a moral obligation to help people in poorer countries meet the health and economic costs of the pandemic. Along with efforts to overcome hesitation, the United States should continue to lead and support global efforts to increase the production of raw materials, strengthen the physical production capacity of vaccines, and train more professionals in production. and the distribution of mRNA vaccines. U.S. agencies and private organizations should develop and deploy plans to ensure that millions of unused doses in the United States are shipped and used overseas before they expire. With commitments to fund or deliver 1.1 billion doses of vaccine globally, the Biden administration has shown that the United States accepts this responsibility.
Moreover, in this era of intensifying geopolitical competition, it stands to reason that the United States is deploying its soft power through humanitarian aid and other actions to gain the trust and goodwill of suspicious allies. and hesitant. According to various reports, including this recent paper published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — Beijing trades access to less effective Chinese vaccines for diplomatic and geopolitical concessions from developing countries. This is yet another reason to continue to protect – rather than cede to the autocrats to be treated as tools of coercion – American intellectual property and the diplomatic and economic value it provides in perpetuity. There is broad bipartisan resistance to the policies of forced technology transfer from China to Washington. There should be similar resistance to the forced transfer of US technology through a TRIPS waiver.
The waiver issue was expected to come to a head this week when the WTO was scheduled to convene its 12e Ministerial conference in Geneva, until Omicron forces its postponement until March 2022. A TRIPS waiver is a solution in search of a problem. Protecting intellectual property is not an obstacle to vaccine equity, but a necessity to overcome this pandemic and the future ones. It takes many years of testing and clinical trials at an estimated cost of $ 1 billion to $ 2.8 billion to bring a drug to market, many of which fail to become commercially viable. Without adequate intellectual property protection, producers and investors would face much greater risk and uncertainty about the returns on their R&D spending and would be less inclined to invest in the next generation of mRNA and other treatments.
The protection of intellectual property is the seed of vital innovation. To weaken this protection on the dubious grounds that it would promote vaccine equity would be a mistake that the world has long and deeply regretted.