Would a vaccine patent waiver save lives or stifle future development?

As the Washington Post has reported, access to COVID-19 vaccines is highly unequal around the world:

The Washington Post found that 45 percent of all vaccine doses administered so far have gone to just 16 percent of the world’s population in what the World Bank considers high-income countries….

A team at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center recently found that high-income countries locked up 53 percent of near-term vaccine supply. They estimate that the world’s poorest 92 countries will not be able to reach a vaccination rate of 60 percent of their populations until 2023 or later.

India, which is facing a huge surge of COVID-19 deaths (estimated to peak as high 12,000 per day in May), has managed to vaccinate less than 10% of its 1.4 billion people with a single dose and less than 2% with a full double dose.

Meanwhile, reports the Post,

The United States is on track to have gathered an oversupply of hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccine doses as soon as July, even while many countries in the developing world will have to wait years to vaccinate a majority of their populations…

In an open letter in April, the People's Vaccine Alliance, which is endorsed by 170 Nobel Laureates and former heads of state, called on President Biden to waive intellectual property rules for COVID vaccines in order to increase access to them.

The letter calls for a temporary waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules during the pandemic. The waiver is supported by more than 100 WTO member states and many health experts.

Proponents of the waiver assert that it’s in the best interest of the US to share its IP freely with the rest of the world:

The full protection of intellectual property and monopolies will only negatively impact efforts to vaccinate the world and be self-defeating for the U.S. Given artificial global supply shortages, the U.S. economy already risks losing $1.3 trillion in GDP this year. Were the virus left to roam the world, and even if vaccinated, people in the U.S. would continue to be exposed to new viral variants.

As the Post reports, the Biden administration announced its support for the proposal in May.

As the New York Times reports,

The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend some of the world economic body’s intellectual property protections, which could allow drug makers across the globe access to the closely guarded trade secrets of how the viable vaccines have been made. But President Biden had come under increasing pressure to throw his support behind the proposal, drafted by India and South Africa and backed by many congressional Democrats.

Vaccine makers who criticize the waiver, as the Post notes, “argue that it would undermine innovation without helping near-term supply issues.”

As the Times reports, Stephen J. Ubl, the president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said the waiver decision would “sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines,” and that it would hand over “American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”

Some in the pharmaceutical industry have contended that suspending patent protections for vaccines would undermine risk-taking and innovation by their industry by depriving them of the economic rewards from their significant investment in research and development.

It remains to be seen how this proposed IP waiver will help in accelerating the supply of vaccines around the world.

Categories: Patents