Could waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents save the world?

A man receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Khartoum, Sudan.
A man receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Khartoum, Sudan. © Ebrahim HAMID, AFP

A year after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, and the world’s pharmaceutical companies threw themselves into the race to find a vaccine against the deadly disease, the contest is now on patenting their immunisation shots. But intellectual property rights drive prices and can discriminate against vaccine access, prompting louder and louder calls for patents to be temporarily waived.


In a 1955 interview with American broadcaster CBS, Jonas Salk, the inventor of the world’s first polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent to the life-saving immunisation shot. “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Although historians say the virologist’s “gift to the world” may not have been as altruistic as it may sound – documents show it was unlikely to meet the patent requirements of the time anyway – Salk is credited with having saved the lives of millions of children. Partly thanks to the lack of a patent.

Now, as the number of Covid-19 deaths near the 3 million mark, the issue of intellectual property rights on vaccines has become one of the most heated debates on the planet.

In a March statement, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, urged countries and pharma companies alike to “waive patents to put the world on a war footing” against Covid-19, underscoring that the vast majority of the doses that have been administered so far have taken place in “a handful of rich and vaccine-producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watch and wait”.

According to a recent count carried out by new agency AFP, 49 percent of all doses have been administered in the West, accounting for just 16 percent of the global population.

The trouble, the WHO chief noted, is that as long as rich countries keep their doses, technology know-how, and intellectual property rights under lock and key, the world cannot meet its No. 1 challenge right now – to ramp up vaccine production.

Free vaccines for all?

South Africa and India were the first to call for the vaccine patents to be temporarily waived. They've since been joined by some 80 developing countries, along with rights groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Amnesty International, as well as broader activist movements like the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is calling for free vaccines for all.

But some vaccine-producing countries, including Britain, EU nations, Switzerland and the United States, have blocked the push arguing that intellectual property rights work as important incentives to drive research and innovation forward, all the while working as a safeguard against low-quality replications.

Some pharmaceutical groups, like AstraZeneca, have agreed to share their licences to allow for the approved vaccines to be manufactured in other parts of the world, but far from all companies have followed suit.

Doctor Anne Sénéquier, a research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said that although “waiving the patents would definitely result in more people getting vaccinated”, taking away the incentives could be risky.

“If you look at private laboratories for example, they’ve always been better funded than the publicly funded ones,” she told FRANCE 24, and pointed to the fact that patents can help ensure the companies’ investments will be returned.

“If the labs can’t be guaranteed that they can make the money back that have already been invested into the research and investment, they are unlikely to continue to invest in it.”

And the pressure on profits increases when the pharmaceutical companies have shareholders to answer to.

Sénéquier held up the most popular areas of modern research as an example: “The vast majority of medicines being developed today treat [Western] diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure – in other words medicines that are bankable.”  

Although this might ring true under normal circumstances, Covid-19 vaccine developers have received around $10 billion in taxpayer and non-profit funding, meaning the vaccines in many ways already belong to the people.

'A recipe without instructions'

But the bigger problem is that even if some pharma companies choose not to enforce patents on their vaccines during the pandemic – like in the case of Moderna – they will be almost impossible to reproduce unless the company behind it also shares its know-how.

Olivier Wouters, Assistant Professor of Health Policy at the London School of Economics, explained that “Moderna saying it will not enforce its vaccine patents during the acute phase of the pandemic is of little help if the company doesn’t share its know-how to allow others to produce the vaccine”.

Wouters said the rich countries that funded the development of the vaccines from the outset could have demanded more from the pharma companies when striking the contracts.

”It would have made a lot of sense to say: ’We will help fund the development and production of your vaccine, but on the condition that you work with the Serum Institute in India, Fiocruz in Brazil, and other manufacturers around the world.'”

Graham Dutfield, a professor at Leeds University and author of “Intellectual Property Rights, Trade and Biodiversity”, agreed, likening a patent without know-how and technological transfers to a recipe without instructions and measurements.

“What we really want is for a number of regional hubs to be set up around the world, in Africa, Latin America and Oceania, and get those producing” to up the global supply needed.

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