The US’ support for vaccine patent waivers still leaves plenty to be resolved

Still worth it.
Still worth it.
Image: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
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President Joe Biden’s declaration of support for the suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines is a major, even unprecedented step. But it doesn’t guarantee what sort of waivers will eventually be negotiated—or when.

For one thing, the US’ decision is insufficient by itself. The World Trade Organization (WTO), where the waivers will be hammered out, requires unanimous approval from its members, and at least one major bloc of wealthy nations—the European Union—is as yet undecided. The EU and the US have been at the forefront of blocking such waivers in the past, not least because the world’s major drug companies—and their lobbying budgets—are based in these countries.

What’s next for vaccine patent waivers?

Next month, India and South Africa, the two countries that have led the call for patent waivers, will circulate a revised proposal of their recommendations to WTO members. Countries will haggle over this draft. Will the waivers be restricted to just the “recipe” for the vaccines? Will big vaccine firms like Pfizer and AstraZeneca get to keep their manufacturing and technical know-how if they wish, rendering the waivers essentially meaningless? Or will governments exercise their power to push their companies into “tech transfer” arrangements?

Additionally, every patented vaccine uses a host of underlying technologies, all of which the manufacturer has licensed from other patent holders. Some of the original patent holders can be public institutes; the National Institutes of Health, for instance, holds a patent that is key to the production of the Moderna vaccine. Others, though, can be companies. Will a patent waiver for a vaccine automatically include waivers for underlying patents as well?

To discuss and negotiate all of this might take months, trade lawyers said. (One saw the next WTO ministerial conference, in early December, as a realistic goal.) And the pharma industry will still be pushing to narrow the scope of these waivers as much as possible. Pharma firms are funding dozens of lobbyists to protect their commercial interests at the WTO. “This is a mitigation effort,” an unnamed source told Reuters, of the industry’s attempt to constrain these waivers. “We’re aiming to make it less bad than it otherwise would be.”

Vaccine patent waivers are for the long haul

If the intellectual property suspensions are approved at all, they will then require more multilateral cooperation to transfer technologies and expertise to countries like India and South Africa, which want to manufacture these vaccines. This will take more time still, especially for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are the first-ever vaccines using mRNA technology to pass clinical trials and enter commercial use.

Setting up these manufacturing facilities will be a challenge not just because of the novelty of these vaccine lines, but also because of the way the vaccine market works at the moment. The EU, for instance, is right now readying to announce a purchase plan for the Pfizer vaccine, which will funnel 1.8 billion doses of boosters, children’s shots, and variant-proof vaccines to the bloc through 2023. If that deal goes through, it will corner a huge portion of the market for vaccine supplies and raw materials. At the WTO, therefore, governments will have to agree not just to suspend intellectual property restrictions, but also to ensure the flow of supplies to developing countries to produce these vaccines.

In warning that patent waivers will not fix the immediate crunch of vaccine supply, drug companies are making a valid point. That crunch can only be resolved if wealthy countries share the doses they’ve stockpiled or hoarded, or if they divert vaccines from their least vulnerable age groups towards the health workers or the elderly in other nations who have yet to be immunized.

But Covid-19 is not just a crisis of the present. It is a crisis that will recur in several forms in the near future—something the EU believes too, clearly, for it would not otherwise be planning to pay now for doses delivered in 2023. Even if it takes 12-18 months to establish functional new vaccine production lines in other countries, that will mean a surer supply of vaccines for the world thereafter. Which will be a vast improvement on the current, lopsided state of access, in which only 0.3% of vaccines administered globally have gone to the citizens of low-income countries.