Why some say waiving COVID-19 vaccine patents could help fix disparity issues
The world wants to put the coronavirus pandemic in the rear-view mirror, but that can’t happen without a lot more people receiving vaccines.
The United States is supporting a push — proposed by India and South Africa last year — for countries to temporarily drop patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines so that more doses can be quickly manufactured and distributed around the globe.
Canada is willing to consider supporting the idea, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he favours reaching a global consensus that takes into account the views of nations in need and also of drug makers.
But any potential waiving of patent protections would be just one piece in the complex puzzle of getting COVID-19 vaccines to all of the people who need them.
What would waiving patent protections do?
What the U.S. is supporting is a temporary waiving of the World Trade Organization’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), a move proponents say would help boost vaccine production and benefit poorer countries in need of doses.
Matthew Herder, director of Dalhousie University’s Health Law Institute in Halifax, said this waiver would clear the way for would-be vaccine producers to get on with the business of trying to make more doses.
“There are flexibilities built into law now that could help countries get around one patent at a time, but the waiver is a blunt instrument that promises to sidestep those kind of IP barriers much more efficiently,” he told CBC News in a recent interview.
James Krellenstein, co-founder of the New York-based advocacy group PrEP4All, believes a patent waiver is a step in the right direction — something he hopes Canada will support.
“In a pandemic, we don’t have any time, really, to have any barrier in place that could prevent the scale-up of manufacturing of vaccines,” he told CBC News Network on Saturday. “Lives are on the line.”
Vaccines needed internationally
Vaccines are key to bringing an end to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 3.2 million lives around the globe, and that urgency isn’t lost on the world leaders scrambling to source them.
That’s why the European Commission wants the U.S. and other COVID-19 vaccine-producing countries to export much more of the vaccines they’re making.
There are currently wide disparities when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine access and rates of vaccination.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday that some countries that signed up to the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative had yet to receive any doses, none of the countries had received enough and some were not receiving their second-round vaccine allocations on time.
Ways of speeding up vaccine effort
Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the non-profit think-tank Center for Global Development, said he sees a general need to bulk up worldwide vaccine-production capacity.
A patent waiver is one approach, but Yadav said for now it’s probably most efficient for COVID-19 vaccine-makers to find manufacturing partners that can help make vaccines in parts of the world where those drug makers are not operational.
“That’s the pathway, which is salient and proven,” he told CBC News from Washington, D.C.
Canada not yet waiving COVID-19 vaccine patents
Vaccine patents are a hot topic at the World Trade Organization. Some countries, including the U.S., argue vaccine patents should be waived during the pandemic to speed up vaccine supply for the world, but Canada is not actively supporting that idea.
Yadav said that’s how the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine has been able to be produced in India, for example.
“The patent pathway could in the medium or … long term create more distributed manufacturing, could have more manufacturers spread around the world,” he said, noting it’s not a likely solution in the short term.
A need for continued innovation, production
Some industry voices have suggested a move to lift patent protections could discourage future vaccine investment, while others have suggested it won’t solve the vaccine production and supply challenges any time soon.
Some political leaders are also opposed — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reiterated her opposition to the idea on Saturday.
“I do not believe that giving away patents is the solution to make vaccines available to more people,” Merkel said. “I believe that we need the creativity and innovation of those firms, and that is why I believe in a patent protection.”
Merkel is among European leaders who favour leveraging the export of vaccines to other countries to get vaccine supplies to countries in need.
“No one will be safe until we all are. If vaccination takes place only in developed countries, our victory over COVID-19 will only be short-lived,” the leaders of Belgium, Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain wrote in a joint letter to the European Commission.
“Vaccines have become security policy and the EU cannot afford to lag behind; to this end, an increased European production capacity will be a key priority,” they said.