Eliminating patent rights for COVID vaccines will do more harm than good

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2021
Eliminating patent rights for COVID vaccines will do more harm than good

Last week, President Biden voiced support for waiving intellectual property protection (essentially patent rights) for coronavirus vaccines, siding with countries such as India and South Africa whose governments are calling for cheaper and faster access to vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

According to the Biden administration, the global health crisis calls for extraordinary humanitarian efforts to help poorer countries defeat the virus. It also argued that evolving mutations of the virus threaten to undermine vaccination efforts in wealthy countries. Hence, there are both humanitarian and self-interested justifications to essentially expropriate the property of drug companies currently producing COVID-19 vaccines.

The move—waiving intellectual property protection (IPP) for coronavirus vaccines—must be approved by every member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), since it violates WTO rules. So Canada, a WTO member, has an important vote on the issue.

Since Canada has not produced a COVID-19 vaccine, it may seem that Canadians have nothing to lose by supporting the waiver. But in fact, there’s a compelling argument against supporting the waiver, even for countries without COVID vaccine manufacturers. Namely, the precedent would discourage biopharmaceutical companies from developing new drugs including new vaccines against future novel viruses. Among all industries, pharmaceutical companies rely most heavily on patents as their main vehicle to protect intellectual property.

And yet, some national governments and social justice activists argue for waiving patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines just this one time, as a “one-off,” in light of the pandemic’s effects. But these same arguments would apply in the future to any new drug for an infectious disease. Indeed, these same arguments could apply (at least in part) to any pharmaceutical innovation where the ability to pay would help determine which countries enjoy earlier—rather than later—access.

Clearly, COVID-19 has caused widespread suffering around the world. But extinguishing the patent rights of vaccine manufacturers will do little to help unvaccinated individuals in poorer countries. At this point in the pandemic, other factors— shortage of raw materials, limited manufacturing capacity, scarcity of skilled workers—are the main obstacles to quickly increasing the supply of vaccines. Expropriating the IPP of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers will not remove these obstacles.

So how should WTO members, including Canada, vote on the Biden administration’s proposal? There’s no easy answer. However, since helping poorer countries suppress the pandemic remains a global issue, the financial burden to help should be shared across all developed countries and not made the primary responsibility of shareholders and employees at a few pharmaceutical companies. Canada and other developed countries should accelerate efforts to donate vaccines that have been purchased but will likely go unused. They might also increase financial contributions to COVAX, the global initiative to improve access to COVID-19 vaccines in poorer countries.

At the same time, all governments should consider creating a global fund to help poorer countries pay for vaccines and medical equipment that will be expensive to acquire in the early stages of future global or regional pandemics. Access to funding could be based on financial need and how efficiently and effectively past funding was utilized. Some such approach, effectively an international public health tax, would arguably do more to promote global public health than imposing direct or indirect “ex post” taxes on companies that we all rely on for future public health innovations including life-saving vaccines.

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