Why it matters that the US wants to waive patent protections for the COVID-19 vaccines

This move is likely a good thing for India and other countries where the pandemic is getting worse because such countries are struggling to produce and administer enough vaccines.

  • Following weeks of pressure, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened in many countries around the world, the Biden administration said it approves waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The decision was announced on Wednesday, May 5, by United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
  • “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said.
  • The announcement was celebrated by those who say it will help bring the pandemic to an end.
  • But it’s also been criticized by those who claim it won’t make a difference in the short-term and could flood the market with low quality vaccines in the long-term.

Why waive the COVID-19 vaccine patents?

  • Just a couple weeks ago, the Biden administration said it was considering but not yet committed to the idea of waiving patent rights for the COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Waiving the rights to the patents means that the pharmaceutical companies’ intellectual property (or the “recipes” for the vaccines) would be available publicly.
  • The increasing pressure to act, including from members of his own party, appears to have pushed President Joe Biden to make this decision.
  • This move is likely a good thing for India and other countries where the pandemic is getting worse because such countries are struggling to produce and administer enough vaccines.
  • Waiving the patents on the vaccines means that more vaccines will be able to be produced.
  • Other companies and countries can start the process, assuming they have the technology.
  • Not only would greater production of vaccines ensure there were more available, it would also mean the vaccines would be cheaper, making it easier to vaccinate residents of developing countries.

Criticism of the Biden administration’s decision

  • But not everybody is a fan of the move to waive the vaccine patents.
  • For some, there is an obvious economic impact: if pharmaceutical companies can’t control the production of their product, they aren’t able to make as much profit.
  • In the hours after the Biden administration’s announcement, all four of the major US companies responsible for producing COVID-19 vaccines – BioNTech SE, Novavax, Inc., Moderna, Inc. and Pfizer Inc. – saw their stocks plummet.
  • But these drugmakers had other reasons for opposing the move.
  • They argued that the main cause of vaccine shortages wasn’t an unwillingness to share knowledge, but the lack of supplies and technological ability.
  • These companies have expressed concerns that an increase in the creation of vaccines by ill-equipped producers will result in a potentially inferior product.
  • Others have noted it could be another year or more before the waiver would have any effect on vaccine productions, meaning it would do next to nothing for struggling nations in the short-term.
  • The World Trade Organization (WTO) also would have to approve the waiver.

So, wait, the Biden administration didn’t waive patent rights?

  • No, the Biden administration doesn’t have the power to just toss out patents.
  • The waivers must be negotiated by the WTO, which is likely to take months.
  • It also isn’t as straightforward as simply waiving all patents for all vaccines. Countries like India and the US will need to bring proposals for how this would work and for which vaccines.
  • All 164 countries in the WTO would then have to agree to the waiver.
  • Considering that Germany just said it opposes the waiver, that might mean this is already dead in the water.
  • On the other hand, some believe that the Biden administration’s support for the waivers was about pressuring pharmaceutical companies into seeking out partnerships for vaccine production.
  • This would likely lead to an increase in vaccine production, which would lead to more and more countries getting vaccinated, even if the waivers never happen.

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