The US unexpectedly announced last week that it would join India, South Africa and others in supporting a proposal at the World Trade Organisation to temporarily suspend intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid vaccines.
In theory, this would free up other companies to make copies of proprietary vaccines owned by the likes of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, speeding up vaccine rollout in poorer countries.
It is to the UK Government’s credit that it – along with a handful of allies including the EU – does not agree with this simplistic proposal. The UK must continue to make the case at the WTO and elsewhere that intellectual property rights matter; they will help us end this pandemic and help us prepare better for the next one.
Consider the facts. In 18 months, Covid has gone from being an unknown disease to a preventable disease with four vaccines authorised by regulators in the US, EU and elsewhere. Global production of Covid vaccines this year is estimated to reach more than 12bn doses, potentially sufficient to achieve global herd immunity in 2022. Vaccine manufacturing at this scale and speed has never before been achieved.
IP has been the unsung hero, enabling dozens of research collaborations and manufacturing partnerships all over the world, often between competitors. Rivals have shared proprietary compounds, platforms and technologies to develop new vaccines in record times. Vaccine developers have joined forces with manufacturers all over the world – many of them commercial competitors – to boost manufacturing capacity.
These partnerships would not happen without the legal certainties provided by IP rights. Rip up the rules and the partnerships may crumble. The last thing the world needs at this delicate stage is a reshuffling of the deck.
Even more dubious is the notion implicit in the WTO proposal that there is spare manufacturing capacity that could be harnessed if only IP didn’t stand in the way. In reality, only a few countries have this advanced manufacturing capacity, and trying to build them in developing countries where they do not currently exist should not be the priority now.
“Most countries do not have industrial cell culture capacity or sterile fill-and-finish lines, and trying to start them from scratch is not a good use of time, money and effort. It would be like deciding that Switzerland needs to be self-sufficient in sushi,” says ex-pharmaceutical researcher and science writer Derek Lowe.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are based on mRNA, a new vaccine technology that is making its commercial debut in this pandemic. “There is no mRNA in manufacturing capacity in the world,” says Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s boss. “This is a new technology. You cannot go hire people who know how to make the mRNA. Those people don’t exist.”
Even with no IP, building this new capacity from scratch would take months, if not years, by which time the existing partnerships would have long delivered. Other vaccine ingredients and input materials are in short supply globally, such as lipid particles and mixers to make mRNA vaccines. Novavax is running up against shortages of ingredients. Their lack of availability has nothing to do with IP rights but has certainly been made worse by export restrictions imposed by many countries – including the US.
Meanwhile, India complains at the WTO about IP rights yet its drug regulators have yet to approve the Pfizer vaccine for use in the country. It’s madness.
A zero IP world would be a backward step and discourage companies from making urgently needed refinements to existing vaccines to combat new Covid variants.
It would derail the dozens of vaccine licensing deals, throwing global supply chains into chaos. It would put in jeopardy the billions of dollars being invested in upgrading manufacturing facilities and creating new ones.
Few will want to invest in new vaccines when the next pandemic comes. Without the private sector, the world will be relying on government labs to research and mass produce vaccines in highly compressed timeframes. A scary prospect indeed.
The UK should use its new independence to establish a leadership role at the WTO and lead resistance against this badly thought-out proposal. The stakes could not be higher.
Philip Stevens is executive director of Geneva Network, a research and advocacy organisation focusing on international innovation policy