The US, EU and vaccine makers are squabbling over the prospect of waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines. But a waiver is unlikely to have any real effect on ramping up production as it intends, and may not be a realistic prospect for global trade.
The US administration last week called to waive IP rights for vaccines, stating that “the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”. It added that it will work with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to “make that happen”.
The waiver was first proposed to the WTO by India and South Africa in October. They urged WTO members to work together to ensure that IP such as patents does not create barriers to coronavirus vaccines.
In the past few months, European leaders and manufacturers of the vaccines have largely opposed the measure.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said at an EU summit in Portugal on May 8: “I see more risks than opportunities,” adding: “I don’t believe that releasing patents is the solution to provide vaccines for more people.” Germany is home to Pfizer’s vaccine partner BioNTech.
“We don’t think, in the short term, that it’s the magic bullet,” said European council president Charles Michel at the event, according to AP newswire, while French President Emmanuel Macron added that giving any priority now to a discussion of IP rights “is a false debate”.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has said that although the waiver proposal paves the way forward, the exemption alone is not enough to guarantee developing countries’ access to vaccines.
Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, wrote in a post on LinkedIn that a waiver would “only derail progress” on the global vaccine rollout. He also argued that it may discourage smaller biotech firms from investing in science in the future if there is a chance their IP may be taken from them.
A March letter to US President Joe Biden from pharma bosses including Bourla and AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot urged the president not to support the proposal.
“Eliminating those protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants, create confusion that could potentially undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, and create a barrier to information sharing. Most importantly, eliminating protections would not speed up production,” it reads.
The US argues that by waiving rights more vaccine doses can be made and distributed – as the formulas will be licensed to other manufacturers around the world.
While in theory a waiver is a good idea, it is not one of practicality. Rebecca Harding, CEO of Coriolis Technologies, a specialist data company, tells GTR: “It is unlikely that the introduction of patent waivers will be implementable, particularly on the newer and more costly forms of vaccine – like the Pfizer or Moderna ones – simply because the technology used and the temperatures at which the vaccines and their ingredients need to be stored are difficult to replicate outside of very high-tech environments.”
It may also take months to agree as all 164 WTO member countries must consent on such decisions.
Even if a waiver was signed, Harding says that the effects would “probably be limited” on the supply of vaccines.
She points to the US likely having other reasons for calling for a waiver. “It has to be seen as a political move – the US administration is looking to undo the reputational damage from its relative isolationism and protectionism over the past few years.”
Former President Donald Trump took a strong stance on US trade and targeted rival China during his tenure, causing outrage in the process.
Trump was heavy-handed with the US’ sanctions programme and advocated for greater trade protectionism – a reputation Biden appears to be trying to shrug off.
Politics aside, the crisis is still very real. In the past month, Covid cases and deaths in India have spiralled, with daily cases regularly exceeding 350,000. More than 12% of India’s population is vaccinated with at least one dose. Europe also faced a brutal third wave in April that saw cases jump across the continent.
Possibly the best way to increase vaccine supply, Harding says, is by taking a more global approach. “AstraZeneca has already said it will do this on a not-for-profit basis and has a wider reach to distribute to poorer regions of the world because it doesn’t have the same requirement for hyper-cold chain… The key thing is that this has to be a global effort – the real impact on distribution and supply will be through organisations like Gavi [Global Vaccine Alliance].”
Gavi is co-leading Covax, the vaccines pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator by the World Health Organization (WHO), which aims to speed up the development, production and equitable access to coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccines around the world. Governments, foundations and corporations are funding the scheme.
Elsewhere, players in the trade community are helping to secure Covid-19 vaccine doses through sensor data and cargo insurance. Broker Aon has brought together a consortium of underwriters and tech firms to address the challenges of transporting temperature-sensitive vaccines.
European leaders have also called for the lifting of export curbs which they say are hitting the manufacturing of vaccines.
“I’m very clearly urging the US to put an end to the ban on exports of vaccines and on components of vaccines that are preventing them being produced,” Macron said at the EU summit.
Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, sent a tweet to Biden in April asking him to lift an “embargo of raw material exports out of the US so that vaccine production can ramp up”.
Over the past year, curbs on exports have been a major issue for the trade of medical goods, including ventilators and PPE, that help fight and protect against the virus.
A March report published on Global Trade Alert, a tracker of export rule changes, warns: “Recent actions and statements by large trading countries make clear that the risk of export curbs on vaccines and vaccine ingredients cannot be discounted.”