LOS ANGELES — In May 2021, the Biden administration backed the temporary suspension of intellectual property patents on COVID-19 vaccines, a move desperately needed as the Delta variant threatened to devastate India and other countries that suffered low vaccination rates.
Since COVID-19 was given its pandemic status by the World Health Organization over a year ago, some countries like the United States and those in the United Kingdom are turning a corner in mitigating the spread of the virus, while others like India are struggling to keep their medical systems afloat.
Although at least four pharmaceutical companies have been authorized to administer vaccines in countries around the world, distribution of these vaccines is concentrated in wealthier countries. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus endorsed a proposal put forth by India and South Africa in October 2020 to temporarily waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines and medical products associated with aiding in the pandemic.
However, the recently appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has proposed a “third way” that moves away from vaccine nationalism and protectionism, while also protecting the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies based in the Global North. She believes a multilateral approach that encourages cooperation between manufacturers in both the core and periphery states will be most effective in ensuring equitable and affordable access to not only vaccines but testing and treatment apparatuses.
While Okonjo-Iweala has attempted to develop a solution where big pharma and developing countries are supported, encouraging cooperation without minimal action places too much faith in the hope that companies will be benevolent in the face of crisis. Allowing for corporations to opt-in in hopes that they will agree to new licensing agreements assumes an altruistic view of the private actors in the international market, expecting them to put people over profit.
The only way to ensure an equitable and affordable route for Global South countries to obtain the vital resources necessary to effectively combat COVID-19 is to waive patent protections. The proposal to temporarily waive TRIPS must be enacted and enforced by the home countries of the pharmaceutical companies in charge of the distribution of the vaccine.
The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, otherwise known as TRIPS, a multilateral agreement that protects the Member states’ intellectual property rights. While it encourages innovation, creativity, and cooperation amongst states, the protections and enforcements of the agreement can be inflexible, and is at the heart of the debate on equitable vaccine distribution.
In order to amend the rules which briefly alleviate patent requirements, a proposal has to reach a three-fourths vote in the WTO General Council. Once rules on patent protections are created, it is very difficult to change how the governing organizations operate. The TRIPS Council is unlikely to reach a consensus nor a proposed vote on the floor of the General Council because the likelihood of such a proposal making it to the floor of the WTO is slim. As explained by a former WTO secretariat, while putting the rule up for a vote is theoretically possible, member countries have never let it happen in the past. While the WTO framework is beneficial when it comes to establishing an open, rules-based, liberal world order, it’s much less effective when dealing with this unprecedented crisis. Currently, the TRIPS Council cannot reach a consensus on their position, and Okonjo-Iweala has avoided voicing support for the proposal.
The countries in opposition, mostly Global North countries including the U.K., Canada, and Norway — but also some Global South countries like Brazil — argue that the IP provision is necessary for maintaining the levels of private investment needed for continued scientific and technological development. Patent waivers of IP information, they argue, would only alleviate one of the many barriers that follow with the distribution of therapeutics and vaccines.
However, Global South countries have proven an ability to manage large sums of vaccine capacity in the coalitions they have built among themselves. One example of this is the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN), which includes 41 members of the Global South and supplies 3.5 billion vaccines across the globe annually. The Global South has at least some capacity in infrastructure to produce vaccines, and with the waiving of the patent, would have the opportunity to restructure for the production of COVID-19 vaccines.
Core states also argue that they are already donating generously to the periphery — the United Kingdom leads in funding the COVAX initiative with vaccines — and therefore see little need for waiving the patent. COVAX, the UN initiative funded by MDCs with the objective to distribute vaccines to LDCs, set the goal to collect two billion doses of the vaccine for equal distribution among both developed and developing countries. However, the COVAX facility has only been able to reserve 700,000 vaccine doses so far, according to data collected by Duke University. Developed countries in bilateral agreements with big pharma have been able to reserve six billion doses for their home countries, while low-income countries haven’t been able to sign any deals with the pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines.
With nearly two billion people residing in low-income countries with no deal, Global South countries are in critical need of an agreement that is working faster than COVAX, but is still affordable for governments to manage. If the patent is waived, Global South countries can assist with the speed and volume of production necessary for equitable distribution, presenting more affordable options to middle- and low-income countries.
In order to sustain the liberal globalized economy, vaccines must be distributed so no blindspots in the economy develop and trade continues. It is in the interest of the core to keep periphery trading partners healthy to maintain economic stability within their trade agreements. For example, it should be in the United States’ utmost interest to ensure India is vaccinated because their consumers buy American goods. Ultimately, equitable vaccine distribution reinforces the norm of globalization while also prioritizing global health as a necessary objective in the next coming months.
The fastest way to achieve product maximization of vaccines and COVID-19 related medicines is to waive the TRIPS patent on related properties. The longer the world waits to distribute vaccines on a global scale, the more time COVID-19 has to mutate and become more infectious.
If the Global North truly wants to end the pandemic and get back to some version of normalcy, they should maintain a vested interest in global vaccine distribution and patent waiving.