The United States’ efforts to develop and roll out vaccines has been exemplary, with approximately 131 million people fully vaccinated. But vaccination initiatives have not been as successful abroad. In many developing countries, the governments and/or vaccine companies either do not have the manufacturing capabilities or the financial means to mass-produce vaccines. The discrepancies between American and European vaccination rates and other countries’ lack to access to vaccines in general can be attributed to one major reason: patents for intellectual property. Vaccine nationalism prevents global vaccine development by allowing countries to withhold research from each other. Countries like the United States have monopolized most of the vaccine supply, causing the war on intellectual property.
Signed, sealed, delivered
Patents allow vaccine companies to completely keep their research and vaccine development confidential. The pharmaceutical industry functions as follows: a company invests in research and development and takes a huge financial risk when doing so. Upon successfully creating a product and distributing it to the public, the patent allows them to have full ownership of their intellectual property. Since no other company can create this same drug and sell it for a lower price or use the same research to develop or change the treatment, a patent allows the pharma companies to effectively create a monopolized market in regard to their respective drug/vaccine.
For example, while Pfizer and Moderna both created mRNA vaccines, their research and development processes were independent of each other. Despite both vaccines using the same foundational idea, they are protected under two separate patents. Ultimately, the patents ensure that the companies can reap the benefits and rewards of the risk they took during the research and development phase by giving them the power to sell and distribute their drugs to their discretion because they are the only sellers in the market.
However, the question facing the world now is whether or not this business model should still continue in the face of a worldwide health crisis.
On May 6, President Biden announced his support for the World Trade Organization’s request to temporarily waive patent rights for the COVID-19 vaccine. This was after India and South Africa, two developing countries hit hard by the pandemic, proposed this waiver to the World Trade Organization in an effort to help accelerate vaccine rollout. Initially, the United States was against this waiver, but following new outbreaks and new variations of the virus, they have since shifted their position.
Those in favor of waiving patent rights believe that by allowing every country and their manufacturing businesses access to the research and technology needed to make a successful vaccine, worldwide production of the vaccine will increase rapidly. Third-world and developing countries who do not have access to the vaccines from companies such as Pfizer or simply do not have the financial means to buy large amounts of doses could use the information to produce the same vaccine at home.
But, opponents of the patent waiver argue that this will have catastrophic effects on the pharmaceutical world and will not have the intended effect of increasing vaccination rollout among the developing nations.
Patent waivers may not make up for external factors in vaccine rollout
One of the major issues facing vaccine production is the extreme strain on the supply chain, causing a shortage of crucial material needed for development. For example, some of the necessary materials, such as the plastic and the tubing needed for the vaccine, are extremely scarce right now. Before the waiver has been granted, there are many manufacturing companies sitting idle because they simply do not have the material needed to produce the vaccine. Opponents of waiving the patent right argue that the barriers in achieving vaccination development to meet the global demand will not be solved by the waiver because of other external issues that exist, like the supply chain shortage. Opponents of waiving the patent argue that external issues like the supply chain shortage prevent enough vaccines
For example, even if companies and manufacturing agencies in India and South Africa receive vaccine technology and research from a company such as Pfizer, they still cannot produce it unless they have all the materials. While the United States has ramped up vaccine production through the Defense Production Act, other nations have not taken similar steps. Unless countries work together to fix the shortage in the supply chain, vaccine rollout would not increase even if intellectual property of research information is available around the world.
One vaccine to rule them all
Critics of the patent argue that the waiver will impede global vaccine development and the business side of the pharmaceutical industry. Exclusive ownership of a treatment is a great incentive for companies to invest in research. The patent is the end prize, and it spurs competition among pharmaceutical agencies to develop new effective treatments as fast as they can. With the development of the COVID vaccine, it was a race between Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson for complete dominance of the market.
By introducing patent waivers, pharma companies may lose their motivation to invest in research and development, and competition will fade. They know that no matter who develops a treatment first, everyone will have access to the intellectual property in the end. As a result, removing patents disincentivizes companies from taking the huge risk of investing in research.
In the short term, this may not seem like a huge problem for the average citizen, with the long-term effect being a lack of new treatments available in the market. As new strains of COVID emerge, companies without financial incentives may reach a standstill regarding new research and development.
The fight on intellectual property unveils the fragile balance between a company’s moral obligations to its customers and their financial motivations. On one hand, waiving patent rights would make vaccines and treatments more accessible to people, especially in developing countries. However, this social contribution is at odds with the need to make a profit and compete in the market.
Global vaccine production is not a simple problem with a simple solution. With confounding variables such as manufacturing capacity, supply chain shortages, and patents that provide exclusivity to research and development, the fight to vaccinate the world’s population will not end in the near future.
Government intervention may be a solution, but can dissuade companies from investing and taking risks in research. This is the delicate line President Biden and leaders of many European countries will try not to cross as they move to approve the WTO’s proposal. The future of intellectual property, an idea once fiercely protected under the law, hangs in the balance as countries try to reach a compromise on a now extremely divisive issue.
Samica Goel is a high school senior, passionate about national politics and international relations. She plans to study economics and business in college and attend law school. In her spare time, Samica is an avid dancer and enjoys traveling.