Why we must be careful about waiving IP rights on vaccines

CIPA believes that moves by the World Trade Organization (WTO), supported by the USA, to temporarily lift patent protection for vaccines will be counter-productive and may set a dangerous precedent.

A large network of patent owners have been at the centre of the rapid development and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines from scratch in less than a year. This should be heralded as a major success.

These organisations and their patents are not the problem when it comes to global vaccine roll-out.

As pointed out in a joint letter opposing a waiver to the US Government from the major intellectual property organisations in North America, there is no data to suggest that patents or other IP rights are hindering vaccine development or delivery.

In fact, through the assignation of ownership rights, agreements over intellectual property have enabled all the major players in COVID-19 vaccine production to collaborate and devote the resources and specialist skills necessary to combat the pandemic.

Should any waiver be implemented, it would immediately slow down and harm such research and collaboration with consequences for ongoing efforts to counter the virus and its variants both now and in the future. It may also make it easier to waive rights in the future for less serious situations. There is a danger that this could form a precedent that could become a slippery slope towards further measures against intellectual property protection.

Scientists and supply chain experts have long questioned whether waiving patents would have any real impact on global vaccine production and have pointed to the complexity of the manufacturing process and scarcity of the highly specialised raw materials as the true bottleneck. (The Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition published a statement which summarises these points well.)

It should also be pointed out that Moderna has already said it will not enforce its patent rights related to its vaccine and AstraZeneca has agreed to share its licences to allow for its vaccines to be manufactured in other parts of the world and has said it will not make profits on its vaccine sales.

Effective vaccines are developed by organisations and companies encouraged to innovate by the prospect of future profit conferred by patents. They do not appear from thin air.

The costs and effort required to develop effective drugs and vaccines are enormous. Getting a drug to market costs an average of £1 billion and is the product of ten to twelve years of research and development (R&D).

CIPA President Alicia Instone said: “Without patents, vaccines and other drugs simply wouldn’t be developed because companies would not be able to recover their R&D costs.

“Rather than hindering knowledge sharing, as some would claim, patents actually promote it. Patents are not secret, they are published. The patent system is the world’s oldest open data repository.”

CIPA believes that, as a society, we need to separate the understandable emotional response to this pandemic from the fundamental good provided by the patent system in ensuring that the financial risks taken to research, develop and commercialise ideas are rewarded.

For more details and a full discussion of the issues, listen to the Vaccines episode of our podcast, Two IPs In A Pod.

Date Published: 11 May 2021

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