One year after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, and the world’s pharmaceutical companies embarked on the race to find a vaccine against the deadly disease, the competition is now about patenting their vaccination shot. But intellectual property rights drive prices and can discriminate against vaccine access, prompting higher and higher calls to temporarily waive patents.
In an interview in 1955 with the American broadcaster CBS, Jonas Salk, the inventor of the world’s first polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent for the life-saving vaccination shot. “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Can you patent the sun? ”
Although historians say that the virologist’s “gift to the world” may not have been as altruistic as it may sound – documents show that it was unlikely that it did not meet the patent requirements of the time anyway – Salk is believed to have saved the lives of millions of children. Partly due to the lack of patents.
Now that the number of Covid-19 deaths is close to 3 million, the issue of intellectual property rights to vaccines has become one of the hottest debates on the planet.
In a statement in March, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, called on both countries and pharmaceutical companies to “waive patents to put the world at war” against Covid-19, stressing that the vast majority of doses administered so far have taken place. in “a handful of rich and vaccine-producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries are watching and waiting.”
According to a recent census by the new agency AFP, 49 percent of all doses have been administered in the West, accounting for only 16 percent of the world’s population.
The problem, the WHO chief stated, is that as long as rich countries keep their doses, technical know-how and intellectual property rights under lock and key, the world cannot meet its No. 1 challenge right now – to increase vaccine production.
Free vaccines for everyone?
South Africa and India were the first to demand that the vaccine patents be temporarily waived. They have since been joined by about 80 developing countries, along with rights groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Amnesty International, as well as broader activity movements such as the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which calls for free vaccines for all.
However, some vaccine-producing countries, including the United Kingdom, EU countries, Switzerland and the United States, have blocked the press and argued that intellectual property rights serve as important incentives to drive research and innovation forward, while working to protect against low-quality replication.
Some drug groups, such as AstraZeneca, have agreed to share their licenses so that approved vaccines can be manufactured in other parts of the world, but far from all companies have followed suit.
Dr. Anne Sénéquier, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said that although “refraining from patents would definitely lead to more people being vaccinated”, it could be risky to remove the incentives.
“If you look at private laboratories, for example, they have always been better funded than the publicly funded ones,” she told FRANCE 24, pointing out that patents can help companies recoup their investment.
“If the laboratories can not be guaranteed that they can recoup the money that has already been invested in research and investment, it is unlikely that they will continue to invest in it.”
And the profit pressure increases when the pharmaceutical companies have shareholders to respond to.
Sénéquier cited the most popular areas of modern research as an example: “The vast majority of drugs developed today treat [Western] diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure – in other words, drugs that are bankable. ”
While this may be true under normal circumstances, Covid-19 vaccine developers have received about $ 10 billion in taxpayers and non-profit funding, which means that in many ways the vaccines already belong to the people.
‘A recipe without instructions’
But the bigger problem is that even if some pharmaceutical companies choose not to apply patents to their vaccines during the pandemic – as in the case of Moderna – they will be almost impossible to reproduce unless the company behind it also shares its expertise.
Olivier Wouters, associate professor of health policy at the London School of Economics, explained that “Moderna says it will not apply its vaccine patents during the acute phase of the pandemic is of little help if the company does not share its knowledge of allowing others to produce the vaccine”.
Wouters said that the rich countries that financed the development of the vaccines from the beginning could have demanded more from the pharmaceutical companies when they met the contracts.
“It would have made a lot of sense to say, ‘We will help fund the development and production of your vaccine, but provided 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, Commerce and Biodiversity”, agreed to liken a patent without knowledge and technical transfers to a prescription without instructions and measures.
“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 to get those who produce” to increase the global supply needed.