The Debate Over Vaccine Patents

May 12, 2021 By Lauren T.
Lauren T's picture

As new mutations of the coronavirus appear around the world, it is clear that no country is safe until the whole world is vaccinated.

This is why President Biden announced recently that the U.S is open to working with the WTO (World Trade Organization) to suspend patents for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

While some countries like Spain and Italy have expressed support, many others as well as the major vaccine manufacturers have opposed this move. Let's look at the role of patents and the debate. 

Understanding Patents

Patents are usually issued by the government. They grant inventors or companies exclusive rights to manufacture, use, or sell their inventions for a limited time.

In the pharmaceutical industry, a patent on drugs protects the manufacturer for about 20 years, after which generic versions of the drugs can be made. Companies that own the patents can also choose to license their inventions to others for a fee.

However, in the vaccine industry, patents are a complex issue. The vaccine manufacturers themselves may have licensed intellectual property from other companies or individual researchers. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, for example, use a new technology called mRNA (explained here), and parts of that technology are licensed from other companies. 

So, should vaccine patents be waived? Let's find out what the proponents and opponents say.

What Proponents Say?

Supporters argue that vaccine patents limit the supply. They point to the inequalities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. While 44% of Americans have been vaccinated, the percentages in developing countries are lagging -- with India at 9.4%, Asia at 4.4%, and Africa below 1%.

The U.S., U.K., and Canada have also made exclusive claims on extra vaccine doses, more than what is needed for their respective populations.

While proponents agree on the importance of intellectual property rights, they say that the pandemic is an unprecedented emergency that justifies the temporary waiving of those rights. Even though COVAX, a vaccine sharing network, has been created, the organization is unable to purchase enough vaccines for the developing world. 

What Opponents Say?

Pfizer, the biotech company behind one of the vaccines, was among the first to oppose the proposal. The company argues that the removal of patents would cause shortages in vaccine raw materials, as other companies rush to obtain the needed components. Pfizer’s vaccine is composed of 280 specialized ingredients, sourced from 19 different countries.

Opponents emphasize the deep technical knowledge and lengthy development process needed for developing vaccines. Simply releasing the patent does not guarantee that others can replicate the quality of the vaccines. This was seen recently when a new manufacturing plant for Johnson and Johnson spoiled millions of vaccine doses. 

Others question whether the issue is really about patents or if it is an issue of vaccine distribution. They recommend countries expand their vaccine donations to those who are in a severe COVID-19 crisis.

Finally, both companies and organizations such as the Gates Foundation oppose waiving patents because it can limit innovation. They say that it sends messages to companies making vaccines that their rights might be taken away by the government. This could prevent the companies from stepping up in the future and also allow countries such as China and Russia to seize upon this technological advantage.

As you can see, the issue of waiving vaccine patents is not an easy one. It will be discussed next month at a WTO panel on intellectual property, but the pharmaceutical companies and the E.U. remain skeptical.

Sources: BBC, Reuters, Guardian, CNBC, NYTimes