Waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents won’t be a panacea

by THE EDITORS / pic by BLOOMBERG

WITH patients in India dying in the streets and crematoriums melting down from over-use, pressure is building on the US and other rich nations to waive patents so that anyone, anywhere can produce Covid-19 vaccines.

There’s no question that boosting global manufacturing and distribution of vaccines should be an overriding priority, but the argument over intellectual property (IP) is missing a crucial point. IP waivers, by themselves, won’t get the job done.

The issue will be front and centre at World Trade Organisation meetings this week. India, South Africa and more than 50 other countries are demanding a temporary waiver of IP rights for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics. They say rich countries have cornered the market on vaccine supplies, inoculating their populations 25 times faster than poor countries and refusing to share stockpiles until their own needs have been met.

Meanwhile, India, which has fully vaccinated barely 2% of its population, is setting world records as new cases have reached 400,000 per day.

Closing this gap is a moral imperative. It’s also in everyone’s interests. The coronavirus  variant contributing to India’s surge has already spread to the US, UK and elsewhere. Other mutations will emerge if the pandemic isn’t brought under control.

The trouble is, merely allowing other drugmakers to produce Covid-19 vaccines doesn’t mean they could. Even if they were able to reverse engineer the vaccines — unlikely, especially for the newer mRNA technology — they’d still lack the personnel, specialised technology, critical inputs and manufacturing techniques to produce at scale.

The real challenge is to induce and enable vaccine makers such as Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc, Johnson & Johnson and others to expand their own output or partner others, licensing their technology and sharing the full range of supporting know-how.

Neither approach is easy. Whether as producers or as partners with others, the main developers are already stretched thin, and rightly concerned about maintaining quality control. Key inputs are in limited supply. And it will take months, at best, to get new facilities up and running. Manufacturers say they’ll make 12 billion doses this year. They might wonder if demand will justify additional investment.

The main thing is that IP isn’t the only bottleneck, or even the central one. The US and its allies need to act as the companies’ partners to eliminate all the other obstacles to increased production and distribution — devising, in effect, a global equivalent to Operation Warp Speed.

Generous financial support for the main developers to expand their own production and distribution in low-income countries should be the first line of attack. But the fastest way to scale up will often be by repurposing other firms’ existing factories, under licence and under the main developers’ supervision. Building entirely new facilities would take longer.

Rich-country governments ought to hasten such arrangements, not just with financial support, but also by relieving the many other choke points involved.

They should help find and do due diligence on potential manufacturing partners in the developing world; provide funding to retool and staff facilities, as the US and Japan have already agreed to do in India; invest in factories to produce key inputs and ensure these flow freely to where they’re most needed; help negotiate contracts, ensuring sufficient demand for manufacturers and alleviating liability concerns; work on accelerating regulatory approvals; and support enlarging the distribution capacity of low-income countries, many of which are struggling to get shots into arms even when they have the vaccines.

One step can be taken immediately. The Biden administration’s decision to send critical vaccine-making supplies to India, and its promise to share millions of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca plc, are both welcome. Now, it should swiftly develop a plan to share some of the more than 300 million extra doses it’ll have this year, as should other rich countries that have ordered more vaccines than they need.

The full extent of necessary support will take time, commitment and money to deliver. If the effort succeeds, countless lives will be saved.

And it’s worth remembering that if it yields a stronger global system of vaccine manufacturing and distribution, the programme will pay dividends not just this time, but in the next pandemic as well. — Bloomberg


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.