With global access to COVID-19 vaccines at an alarmingly low, the US is considering a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights. And the IP waiver has become more of a need as India is battling its second wave of COVID-19 infections.
US lawmakers and non-profit groups are heaping pressure on the Biden administration to back the temporary patent waiver to help poor countries battle a massive surge in cases. According to Reuters, the United States and several other countries have thus far blocked negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) about a proposal led by India and South Africa that would waive IP rights of pharmaceutical companies to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines.
Critics argue that waiving the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property could reduce the safety of vaccines, and that setting up production in new places would sap resources needed to boost production in existing locations. At every step of drug development, as per Geneva Network, intellectual property rights play a crucial role, supporting early research, bringing treatments through clinical trials and getting them to patients. Each of these steps requires large investments of time, money and resources. As such, intellectual property rights support those investments by giving the opportunity of a return. They also create a basis for cooperation among organizations by encouraging trust.
The fundamental misunderstanding miscasts intellectual property rights as a roadblock, but in fact, its the vehicle that speeds progress, providing the investment and cooperation needed to achieve ambitious goals, which is true in the prevailing global health crisis. Opponents of IP have called for the suspension of IPRs at every stage in the effort to develop treatments to defeat COVID-19 from early R&D, to bringing treatments to market, to ramping up manufacturing. This has culminated in proposals by South Africa and India at the WTO to waive all IP rules for COVID-19 technologies.
Some experts, including scholars and health activists, believe IP would inevitably hold up urgent research. They theorized that the “winner-takes-all” nature of IPRs, especially patents, would prevent scientists from rapidly disclosing research results and discourage the sharing of unpatentable insights that may potentially lead to patentable treatments with further work.
Members of Congress have warned that IP would “put public health at risk”, while NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) called for “no patents or profiteering” on yet to be developed health technologies. Moreover, a coalition of over 500 NGOs claimed that IP rights were a hindrance to efforts to tackle the pandemic, calling for all COVID-19 related IP to be rescinded.
The monopoly granted to “Big Pharma” has enabled them to resist any kind of international attempt to share scientific data and technology, making it impossible for other manufacturers across the world to enter into production. The only way to ramp up vaccine production, as soon as possible, is to lift patents and transfer technology. The sharing of knowledge and technology will ensure more vaccines are produced as soon as possible, for everybody, everywhere across the globe.