A View from Both Sides: COVID-19, the TRIPS Waiver, IP Rights, and How to Increase the Supply of Vaccines

Issue

The United States and other wealthy nations have access to plenty of COVID-19 vaccine doses and thus are beginning to get the pandemic under control, while less affluent countries do not have access to adequate doses and are still struggling with rising cases. In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed addressing this problem by waiving certain portions of the TRIPS Agreement, the most comprehensive agreement on intellectual property (IP) aspects of international trade among the WTO’s 164 member states. The waiver cites “an urgent call for global solidarity, and the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how in order that rapid responses for the handling of COVID-19 can be put in place on a real time basis.” While this proposal broadly applies to any COVID-19-related technology, much of the conversation is currently focused on vaccines.

The proposal would temporarily suspend patent rights covering COVID-19 vaccines and possibly also be used to compel the transfer of trade secret “know-how” and “show-how.” Proponents say this would allow any manufacturer to begin production—boosting vaccine supply while slashing prices—to end the surge of cases in less developed nations. Critics argue that the reality is more complicated: the waiver will be ineffective, even harmful, and it would have a devastating impact on our readiness for future health crises.

In Support of the Waiver

For supporters of the waiver, the answer is clear: cases are rising in many nations because they still don’t have the vaccines they need. It’s only reasonable to make exceptions to our ordinary system of business incentives during times of global crisis.

The Biden Administration

That is essentially what U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai stated when the Biden Administration announced its support for the waiver: “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

It affects all of us

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says that the “me-first approach” among powerful nations “is self-defeating and will lead to a protracted recovery with trade and travel continuing to suffer.” Under this rationale, even purely self-interested parties should support the waiver, if only because modern commerce is so globally connected.

Dropping IP barriers will facilitate greater collaboration

Many say the threat of IP litigation prevents the kind of collaboration needed to quickly ramp up production and development, and that a waiver can remove that threat. The president of Médecins Sans Frontières, Dr. Christos Christou, says that “[t]he waiver proposal offers all governments opportunities to take action for better collaboration in development, production and supply of COVID medical tools without being restricted by private industry’s interests and actions, and crucially would give governments all available tools to ensure global access.”

Patents were not meant to impede emergency action

A recent editorial in the journal Nature argues that patents are designed to protect ordinary commercial interests, not to hinder global cooperation against a common threat: “A pandemic is not a competition between companies, but a race between humanity and a virus. Instead of competing, countries and companies need to do all they can to cooperate to bring the pandemic to an end.”

It solves an immediate need without setting a troubling precedent

While opponents of the waiver argue that it will weaken future drug patent protection, Imron Aly and Ahmed M.T. Riaz of Schiff Hardin LLP call those concerns “unfounded” in their post at IPWatchdog. Not only is the current proposal limited specifically to COVID-19, but it was also not created carelessly. Instead, it “has taken substantial international efforts and official international law amendments.” Aly and Riaz say this exceptional action is appropriate if it can succeed where our IP system has yet to do so: “The TRIPS waiver simply allows countries the option to suspend patent enforcement to encourage COVID-19 vaccine production, which makes sense for those countries where current investment has not resulted in vaccine access.”

Even if the waiver doesn’t work, it might work

University of Houston Law Center Professor Sapna Kumar acknowledges a number of functional issues with the waiver approach but notes that it may still have a positive effect on the pandemic: “Overall, the greatest benefit of the Biden Administration’s support for the waiver is that it signals a departure from the prior approach of punishing countries facing health crises and that it might spur pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily increase out-licensing and donations of vaccines.” Her prediction was borne out by a recent pledge to donate 2.3 billion doses by Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna.

Opposed to the Waiver

Opponents of the waiver argue that it will not be effective because it fails to address the real problems. Further, it could actually be detrimental to quality control and supply chains in the present crisis, while quite possibly affecting how pharmaceutical companies choose to allocate investment dollars in the future.

It’s a long process that requires much more than a temporary waiver of licenses

Vaccines are not like other drugs. Writing for Foreign Affairs, Peter J. Hotez, Maria Elena Bottazzi, and Prashant Yadav say that we can’t compare the current situation to similar actions on HIV treatments, and that most nations are not prepared to make use of the patented technology: “Producing vaccines—particularly those as technologically complex as the messenger RNA (mRNA) inoculations against COVID-19—requires not only patents but an entire infrastructure that cannot be transferred overnight.” The authors state that “[t]he effective transfer of such complex technology requires a receiving ecosystem that can take years, sometimes decades, to build.”

We need another way

Professor Yogesh Pai of the National Law University Delhi says that simply waiving trade secret protection won’t automatically disclose everything a manufacturer needs to know. Accessing “hard tacit knowledge of manufacturing/quality control measures for production and clinical data required for regulatory clearances” could require forced technology transfer (FTT) by national governments. He recalls how detrimental such efforts were to India’s economy when it tried FTT with Coca-Cola in the 1970s, prompting the company to leave the country altogether.

Prof. Pai instead recommends efforts to encourage voluntary cooperation: “Where blunt legal instruments don’t work, using track-1 and track-2 diplomacy to place moral coercion on western governments to nudge firms to actively engage in technology licensing may still work wonders.”

“China First” policy?

Sixteen U.S. senators issued a sharply worded letter to the executive branch, questioning the true motives of “China and other countries which regularly steal American intellectual property—like India and South Africa,” and expressing shock that an American president would go along with it: “These nations are falsely claiming that granting such a waiver would speed the development of new vaccine capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Instead, the senators are suggesting that the waiver is being used as a means to unfairly to acquire trade secrets that took massive resources and time to develop.

Reuters reports that “some U.S. officials fear the move would allow China to leapfrog years of research and erode the U.S. advantage in biopharmaceuticals” and quotes a senior U.S. official as saying that the country “‘would want to examine the effect of a waiver on China and Russia before it went into effect to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.’”

IP is not the Issue

A waiver on patent rights, even with the corresponding trade secrets, can only give permission to manufacture. But Eva Bishwal of Fidus Law Chambers writes that the real problems in India “are state inaction, dearth of raw materials and low production capacity.”

According to Patrick Kilbride of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center, and as cited in Pharmaceutical Technology, “[p]roposals to waive intellectual property rights are misguided and a distraction from the real work of reinforcing supply chains and assisting countries to procure, distribute and administer vaccines to billions of the world’s citizens.”

Low-quality vaccines could do more harm than good

Former USPTO Director Andrei Iancu voiced concern recently at a World IP Day event, asking, “if we waive IP rights, and exclude the original manufacturers, how are we going to control the quality of the vaccines that go into people’s arms? How are we going to control for the fake vaccines? Just last week we saw fake Pfizer vaccines.” And as Philip Thompson points out for IPWatchdog, when investigators are forced to “determine if adverse events or sub-par effectiveness originate from ‘real’ vaccines or fake doses, we should expect global production starts and stops to become much more frequent.”

It will discourage investment in the most critical areas

Pharmaceutical developers invest unfathomable amounts of money into bringing drugs to market. The path to success is long, expensive, and highly uncertain. But what is certain is that successful drugs can yield a profit that covers the loss from failures. Now critics are deeply worried that this waiver will skew future cost-benefit analyses against important classes of medicine. All other things being equal, a developer has a better chance at a positive return by investing in drugs that pose no risk of seizure during a global emergency. As Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development writes, the waiver sends the wrong message to innovators and investors: “don’t bother attacking the most important global problems; instead, throw your investment dollars at the next treatment for erectile disfunction, which will surely earn you a steady return with far less agita.” The scramble amongst pharmaceutical giants to develop a vaccine was an all-out race, with good reason, and that’s exactly how it should be. If those companies believe that forfeiture is waiting at the finish line next time around, we might see fewer contestants.

Even “no-profit” vaccine makers appear to oppose the waiver

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla laid out everything the company has done to combat the vaccine in an equitable manner and argued that “waiver of IP rights could only derail this progress.” And while Pfizer and Moderna are selling their vaccines at a profit, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have pledged not to do so during the pandemic.

However, it appears that even those companies oppose the waiver. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the trade group PhRMA, which represents Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca among many others, is “lobbying members of Congress to oppose the Biden administration’s support for the waiver.” Johnson & Johnson’s Chief IP counsel Robert DeBerardine says that patent rights are responsible for the breakneck pace of development and that the drug’s makers are the best-equipped people to continue the fight: “What we’re able to do, because we have control of the IP, is to pick the best companies to help us supply the world. If you were to give everything to everybody, you may see a flood of vaccines, but you would have no idea if they’re safe and effective.”

Conclusion

While we share the concerns of other organizations that effective, affordable, and accessible vaccines be made available to all persons regardless of location or wealth, we do not believe that upending longstanding U.S. patent policy for a solution that will do little if anything to increase the vaccine supply is advisable. Strong IP rights remain the best way to incentivize innovation and ultimately increase the supply of life-saving medicines. The Biden administration’s unprecedented support of the proposed WTO IP waiver, while well intended, is likely to create long-term harm and unlikely to have much of an impact on global vaccine supplies. Ultimately, encouraging companies to license IP and engage in voluntary knowledge transfer, along with the sharing of excess doses that are being produced, are methods far more likely to alleviate the vaccine supply issues than waiving IP rights and would be a better path forward out of the current crisis.