For those advocating for better access to vaccines, this is a case of two cheers for Joe Biden. His administration’s decision to back pressure on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines may be a huge step forward in ending vaccine inequity, campaigners say, but on its own, it will not have a decisive effect on health. crisis.
What did the Biden administration agree to support?
Last October, rightly fearing that manufacturing of the Covid-19 vaccine could be dominated by rich countries, India and South Africa proposed to the World Trade Organization to waive patents on Covid vaccines. -19 and other technologies. It won the support of more than 100 emerging countries, but encountered opposition from a club of richer countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, the EU and, until now the United States.
The Biden administration has announced that it is changing its position and will support waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines – but not on treatments or other technologies used to fight the disease.
If the waiver is adopted by the WTO, it would allow companies around the world that develop Covid-19 vaccines to do so without fear of being sued by another entity that already holds the patent on the product.
Does the decision mean more vaccines?
Vaccine campaigners hailed the move as “seismic” and heroic, “a potential precedent for waiving intellectual property (IP) to deal with health crises in the future. But they have also made it clear that on its own it will not solve the global Covid-19 vaccine shortage.
On the one hand, the WTO must in fact adopt the waiver. The trade body generally operates by consensus, and key economies such as the UK, Canada and the EU continue to support the maintenance of vaccine patents. The US turnaround could persuade those countries to compromise on the issue and strike some sort of deal that is an improvement on the current situation, but that does not entirely waive intellectual property rights to vaccines. .
Second, vaccines are extremely complex formulations. As we have seen throughout this year, even experienced companies are having trouble increasing their production. The manufacturing process is just as important as the patented “recipe”, and the WTO does not have the power to force companies like Pfizer and Moderna to share the technology and knowledge used to produce their vaccines.
But national governments have that power. The United States could take the lead in pushing its pharmaceutical companies to share not only their patents, but also their technology and know-how with manufacturers around the world. “He wouldn’t be delivering more vaccines next week, but if they had done it a year ago, we would have results now,” says Ellen t’Hoen, medical intellectual property expert and activist.
Plus, she says, sharing technology and expertise with manufacturers around the world will make it easier to produce and distribute vaccines to fight future pandemics that scientists say are a virtual certainty. “The world was not prepared for Covid-19, this is what we are waking up to,” she says.
What does the pharmaceutical industry say?
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they are firmly opposed to the sharing of patents that promise to bring them tens of billions of dollars over the next few years. But their trade organization says its opposition is not a matter of profit, but of practicality.
“The waiver of patents on Covid-19 vaccines will not increase production or provide the practical solutions needed to tackle this global health crisis,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said in a statement.
The industry argues that companies have already shared the technology with skilled partners around the world and could produce billions of vaccines this year – enough to immunize the world – if governments help them smooth trade barriers and remove them. controls on the export of raw materials necessary for production. doses. They say that rich countries are also hoarding vaccines, and if they agreed to donate them to share them more equitably, the crisis would be less acute.
More generally, they also argued that patent rights are essential to stimulate innovation and investments that lead to new products. If a scientist fears that his wonder drug or vaccine will immediately be produced for free by labs around the world, the argument goes, he will be less motivated to develop it.
But activists say there is plenty of evidence that even without the motivation for profit, scientists would still be driven to innovate. The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine was developed with at least 97% public and charitable funds, research shows. The mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was also funded for decades by taxpayers before being taken over by pharmaceutical companies.