Speaking to The New York Times , Christopher J. Morten, a New York University law professor specializing in medical patents, said the Biden administration has the leverage to force companies to share technology and expand worldwide production. However, despite immense government funding for these pharma companies to develop COVID-19 vaccines, both the US and the EU refuse to do this, arguing that by protecting the Intellectual Property of these companies they facilitate innovation.
The drug companies also argue that finding partners with the right technology is demanding. According to The New York Times, Moderna’s chief executive, Stephane Bancel, told European lawmakers that, “they don’t have the equipment. There is no capacity.” But this is not the case. Several countries, such as Bangladesh and Canada, have issued statements [4, 5] saying they do have the capacity but require emergency patent-transfer so they can begin manufacturing the vaccine.
Intellectual Property Rights
In October South Africa and India called for the World Trade Organization to suspend Intellectual Property rights related to COVID-19 . Specifically, they called “for a waiver from the implementation, application, and enforcement of the intellectual property rights of products and their underlying technologies for prevention, containment, or treatment of COVID-19, until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world population has developed an immunity”.
Dozens of LMICs support the proposal, but pharma companies and several advanced economies in the WTO including the UK, USA, Japan and the EU opposed the initiative, saying that the Intellectual Property system is required to incentivise new inventions of vaccines.
The proposal states that Intellectual Property rights such as patents are obstructing affordable COVID-19 medical products. A temporary waiver would allow multiple actors to start production sooner, instead of having manufacturing concentrated in the hands of a small number of patent holders.
“What this waiver proposal does is it opens space for further collaboration, for the transfer of technology and for more producers to come in to ensure that we have scalability in a much shorter period of time,” Mustaqeem De Gama, counsellor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO, who helped write the proposal, is quoted as saying .
There are provisions within the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to facilitate this. Specifically, paragraph 7 of the Doha Declaration, adopted at the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, on 14 November 2001, reaffirms “the commitment of developed-country WTO members to provide incentives to their enterprises and institutions in order to promote and encourage technology transfer to Less Developed County (LDC) members, as set out under Article 66.2 of the TRIPS Agreement, thus confirming that technology transfer to LDCs is also a public health issue”.
A recent research paper published in March by the South Centre , notes that data analysis carried out by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) estimates that only in 2024 will there be the production of the vaccines necessary to generate global immunization. The paper, which looks in detail at the impact that intellectual property rights will have on production capacity and the availability of technologies to respond to the pandemic, concludes that “the current TRIPS waiver proposal seems to be the political and institutional response with the greatest potential to guarantee the scaling of the production of pharmaceutical inputs, allowing the adoption of a comprehensive strategy to ensure timely, sufficient, and affordable access to all technologies developed to fight COVID-19”.
On 9 March this year the WTO Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, called on COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to do more to ramp up production in developing countries.