A Global Covid Vaccine Heist
Breakthroughs on vaccines and new treatments are finally offering the world a path to end the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re a tribute to private U.S. corporate innovation, but now developing countries led by India and South Africa are making a damaging bid to waive patent protections for these life-saving advances.
The attempt will surface Friday when these countries offer a resolution at the World Trade Organization meeting to waive patent protections for Covid vaccines, therapies and other technologies. They say this is needed to ensure poor countries have equal access, but their effort would harm everyone, including the poor.
“There are several reports about intellectual property rights hindering or potentially hindering timely provisioning of affordable medical products,” India and South Africa wrote last month in a WTO proposal that has drawn support from Pakistan, Argentina and Venezuela. America’s left and many nonprofit activists are backing the resolution.
Their complaint is that wealthy countries have locked up most of the world’s vaccine supply next year and are hoarding virus therapies and diagnostic tests. They want the WTO to grant free and unrestricted access to the intellectual property of private companies. Otherwise, they warn, the global pandemic will continue to rage.
This is a false choice. Private companies in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Europe, with the financial support of their governments, have produced most virus breakthroughs. The Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed has spent more than $10 billion to advance vaccine clinical trials, manufacturing and distribution.
The U.S. government has also agreed to compensate private companies for vaccines and therapies in return for obtaining the earliest available dosages. For instance, the feds have allocated $1.5 billion to support the manufacturing and delivery of Moderna's vaccine candidate in return for 100 million initial doses. America’s taxpayers have essentially paid for early access.
Nonetheless, companies plan to share the fruits of their investment and innovation with the world’s poor. A World Health Organization initiative funded by wealthy countries has reserved 450 million vaccine doses for 92 developing countries with populations of 3.9 billion. Gilead has voluntarily agreed to license its antiviral remdesivir royalty-free to developing countries.
Many companies are willing to license their IP at low or even no cost but want contractual agreements to ensure it is developed safely and not pilfered. But India and South Africa want to obtain this technology without paying for it and then use their generic-drug manufacturing base to produce, distribute and sell copycats worldwide.
This is theft, not sharing. Vitiating patents will stifle innovation and make it harder to end this pandemic and the next one. It’s not clear developing countries even have the ability to manufacture large-scale, complex technologies like Moderna’s mRNA vaccine or Eli Lilly’s monoclonal antibody cocktail—let alone distribute them.
The latter requires a strong health-care infrastructure and meticulous planning. Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at ultra-cold temperatures. Even if governments of poorer countries were given free life-saving therapies and vaccines, most of their people wouldn’t get immediate access. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, most governments in the developing world also don’t provide liability protection to vaccine makers for adverse side effects. “Manufacturers won’t agree to procurement contracts or ship vaccine without liability protection,” a New England Journal of Medicine article recently explained.
Europe and the U.S. oppose the patent heist at the WTO, but they may be outnumbered at Friday’s meeting. China seems conflicted. It also wants access to the West’s vaccine technology. But it has developed vaccines of its own that it aims to distribute to poor countries to build goodwill.
Vaccines and therapies aren’t a free global good. They require billions of dollars in investment and years of risk-taking. U.S. companies are willing to share what they’ve developed but their patents deserve protection as an asset that is now helping the world eliminate the Covid scourge.