Vaccine patents: protecting profit at all costs

Image description: several small vials labelled ” Coronavirus Vaccine” laid out in a row.

Two weeks ago, the UK reached its second vaccination target, with just under 50% of the population having received their first dose. Although this news did not attract much attention – perhaps due to the warm temperatures and open pubs serving as more direct reminders that a return to normalcy is within reach – it is grounds for some celebration. After a series of initial blunders, the successful vaccination campaign is being hailed as a turning point in the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But pandemics are, by definition, global health crises. This means that, despite the illusion of safety which the UK vaccination rates convey, we will not be safe until the virus has been suppressed across the world.

While wealthy countries like the UK have purchased enough doses to vaccinate their populations multiple times over, many countries in the southern hemisphere are sorely lacking vaccinations, and may not achieve population immunity until 2024. This severe delay increases the risk of vaccine-resistant variants emerging, which may render the current generation of Covid-19 vaccines ineffective within as little as a year.

Incredibly, despite this urgent need for a more rapid and global vaccination rollout, there is currently no global effort to expand vaccine production. Instead, the pharmaceutical companies that have developed the vaccines closely guard their “recipes” and supply chains, claiming that intellectual property rights must be maintained to attract investors to fund the underlying research. Alongside the question of whether this focus on financial gain is appropriate in such a serious situation, it has been questioned whether pharmaceutical companies even have a right to claim intellectual ownership of the vaccine formulas. After all, the vaccines were developed not with the help of private investors, but with massive financial support from public institutions. A report from Doctors Without Borders suggests that the six main vaccine candidates received over $12 billion of taxpayer money, which is estimated to cover up to 97% of research and development costs.

Viruses don’t care about borders, and it is time for governments to realise this and support more global access to vaccines.

Cries for governments to band together to temporarily waive intellectual property rights have therefore become louder. This would enable smaller facilities to take up vaccine production, expanding manufacturing capacity and helping to increase vaccine accessibility. Many governments support the idea of opening up vaccine production: India, South Africa and 100 other nations petitioned the World Trade Organisation to suspend vaccine patents. But the motion was blocked by countries such as the UK, the US, as well as the EU – regions that have largely already secured the doses they require.

The pharmaceutical industry’s resistance to waiving intellectual property rights is understandable: They want to ensure that they remain the sole producers and suppliers of their profitable drugs. For them, any opening up of the rights to produce Covid-19 vaccines represents a threat to their business model. But the right of pharmaceutical companies to monopolise production of their patented drugs is a relatively recent development. In previous global emergencies, governments and international organisations enforced the sharing of formulas and manufacturing techniques. Even nations currently opposing such waivers of intellectual property rights participated, with the US forcing pharmaceutical companies to share antibiotic formulas in the Second World War. In the global smallpox campaign, the WHO compiled a register of drug formulas and manufacturing procedures, sharing them freely among nations.

It may seem a little late in the course of the pandemic to try new approaches, especially such drastic ones such as waiving intellectual property rights that have so far looked unassailable. But, as we in the UK tentatively move towards opening up our society and supporting economic recovery, we should remember that all of the freedom gained could be lost if vaccine-resistant variants emerge. Viruses don’t care about borders, and it is time for governments to realise this and support more global access to vaccines. Our lives, and the lives of people around the world, should be more important than the legal protection of profit.

Image credit: Daniel Schludi.