Panel Discussion: Vaccines, Intellectual Property, and Global Equity

The following post comes from Colin Kreutzer, a 2E at Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at C-IP2

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the role of intellectual property in modern medicine and on the complex social questions surrounding a system that grants exclusive rights over life-or-death products. On the one hand, there is clearly a difference between public access to lifesaving medicines and other patented goods, such as consumer electronics. However, creating these drugs required billion-dollar investments and enormous risk, made feasible only by that promise of IP rights. Wouldn’t taking that promise away harm future development of new medicines? As the world considers a waiver of IP rights over COVID-19 vaccines and other technologies, experts are analyzing not only what’s right and what’s wrong, but also what works and what doesn’t.

On June 10, 2021, C-IP2 and the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation held a panel discussion on vaccines, intellectual property, and global equity. With opening remarks by Lemelson Director Arthur Daemmrich, and moderated by C-IP2 Faculty Director Professor Sean O’Connor, the panel featured Dan Laster, Director of the Washington State COVID-19 Vaccine Action Command and Coordination System (VACCS) Center; Professor Arti K. Rai, Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Duke Law Center for Innovation Policy; and Eric Aaronson, Senior Vice President and Chief Counsel, Corporate Affairs, Intellectual Property and Intellectual Property Enforcement, Pfizer Inc.

Opening Remarks

Mr. Daemmrich began with a historical perspective of medical developments in this country, as well as the social, economic, and regulatory issues that would invariably be tangled up within them. His tale foretold many of the conflicts we see today—going from a time when most modern medicines didn’t exist, and high mortality was a fact of life, to a time when vaccines and other treatments existed, but access depended partly on wealth. In between those two periods, we saw rapid growth in IP protection that helped move society from one to the other. But whether in the form of religious opposition to smallpox inoculation, regulatory reforms after tragedies from bad medicine, or protests from a marginalized community during the AIDS crisis, legal and social issues have always played a prominent role in the story of medical science.

Building on this historical base, Mr. Daemmrich posed the problem now facing us: compared to other medicines, there are relatively few vaccines. On a grand scale, the entire field of vaccination is still in a stage of early development, and there exists great potential for growth in the future. The question is how to best stimulate that growth, or rather, how to ensure the greatest access to already-developed vaccines without stifling the creation of new ones?

Prof. O’Connor then led the panel with a series of questions. He began by asking about the difference between two classes of medicine. Vaccines are generally thought of as biologics—treatments that are derived from live cells­—whereas pharmaceuticals belong to the class of “small-molecule” drugs. They are primarily chemical compounds rather than a biological product.

Q: From an IP perspective, are vaccines different from small molecule pharmaceuticals? What role does IP play in making vaccines available?

 Prof. Rai responded that vaccines are indeed very different from small molecule drugs. From an IP perspective, the two classes derive their greatest protection from different sources.

Small molecule drugs can be produced without the need for company trade secrets. All the most critical information can be found within the text of the patent. So, the greatest protection comes from the patent itself, which grants its owner the right to exclude others from making or using the drug, and from data exclusivity, which prevents other companies from using the original developer’s clinical data to obtain regulatory approval of its own product.

Vaccines, on the other hand, cannot be quickly copied solely by reading the patent. There is a great deal of “know-how” involved in the manufacturing process. Because of this, trade secrets can be just as important to vaccine protection as the patent.

The role of IP in vaccine access, she said, is an interesting question. While public funding exists in the world of small molecule drugs, it has a “heavier footprint” in vaccine development, which then has some impact on the incentive model as it applies to vaccines.

Mr. Laster said the role of public funding was critical to his prior work at PATH, an organization devoted advancing global healthcare equity through public-private partnerships and other initiatives. Public funding has a “de-risking” effect in that the high costs and uncertainty of clinical trials are not borne entirely by the private sector. And because vaccine development typically requires cooperation among many parties, it is valuable to have different types of incentives in play (i.e., “pull”-type incentives, such as patent grants, as well as “push”-types, such as public funding). But from an IP perspective, exclusivity can pose a challenge to those cooperative efforts.

Additionally, he said that the detailed know-how involved with vaccines makes technology transfer incredibly difficult. If the intended receiver in a developing nation lacks the capacity to utilize the technology, how can effective tech transfer work in real-world practice? The question is less about whether we should be transferring vaccine technology to developing nations than it is about whether we can.

Mr. Aaronson said that a key piece of our IP system is that it does allow for greater cooperation by providing a means of transferring technology among partners while preventing that technology from being used for unauthorized purposes. He credits that cooperative system for enabling Pfizer to partner with BioNTech, producing a vaccine in record time. He added that this vaccine is currently supplied in 116 countries and counting, that they have committed to supplying at least 2.5 billion doses, and that they have just struck a purchase agreement with the United States for 500 million doses to supply lower-middle income nations. The required research, discovery, and development would not have been possible without a strong IP system that provides the right incentives and enables secure technology sharing among a large host of players.

Q: While we don’t know what final form the waiver might take, do you see it playing a necessary role in actually increasing vaccine supply and access in the coming year or two? Are there potential downsides to an IP waiver that should be considered?

Prof. Rai said that the biggest effect of a waiver would likely be its “symbolic” value, as other factors will have a much greater impact on vaccine access. But even if there were no substantive effect, it would be good for high-income nations to demonstrate an interest in global health issues. However, she considered the waiver issue “a little bit of a sideshow,” saying it likely would be “neither as bad as opponents fear nor as good as proponents hope.”

Prof. O’Connor noted that this is a particularly difficult question to answer when nobody knows what form any potential waiver would eventually take.

Mr. Laster based his perspective on his ten years of negotiating vaccine development and distribution efforts with PATH, saying he is “not sure [the waiver] aligns well” with what’s needed. Recognizing the importance of trade secrets and the complexity of the partnerships involved, he says a successful system must encourage willing cooperation. Simply waiving IP rights won’t necessarily do that. He also cautioned against taking a “static view” of the problem by taking for granted that the vaccine already exists rather than considering the IP system that helped create it, and failing to ensure that the same system is incentivizing new vaccines in the future. That said, the threat of a waiver might provide enough encouragement to bring about voluntary participation before an actual waiver becomes a reality. He credits this threat with already having a noticeable effect on pricing and other strategies.

Mr. Aaronson added that we are dealing with multiple vaccines based on very different technologies. Concentrating “a little more on the practical versus the theoretical,” he noted that the impacts of an IP waiver can vary greatly from one technology to another. The mRNA vaccine is the first drug of its type to ever receive approval. Much of the necessary tech transfer would not be limited to COVID-19, but could apply to the entire mRNA technology platform, drastically impacting its value. Waiving the rights to a groundbreaking technology could reduce the incentive to explore uncharted technological fields.

He also said it’s not certain that waiving IP rights would yield a net increase in the number of doses produced. The existing developers are producing large amounts of the vaccine. Opening the supply chain up to new entrants who may not be able to effectively utilize those supplies could yield a net decrease in production.

Prof. O’Connor also took audience questions for the panel. Some are listed below, starting with a “great foundational question.”

Q: How would it be ethical to allow lifesaving medicines and vaccines to be patented?

Prof. O’Connor began by addressing the purely legal perspective—that such patents are allowed under U.S. law, although there have been exceptions in some other countries at certain times because of this complex ethical question.

Mr. Aaronson said it’s important to think about patents as a part of a broader incentive structure. Are we putting the incentives in place to get someone to get up every morning and put in the work, money, and risk to create a product? We need an incentive structure, or there won’t be anyone making those lifesaving medicines. A patent system is one way to achieve this.

Q: If patent disclosures cannot teach producers how to make a vaccine without also getting corresponding know-how, how can they satisfy the disclosure requirement for patentability?

Prof. Rai has written multiple articles about this question (see one here) and offered several reasons. Some of the know-how is not easily written down. The need for shared know-how could possibly be satisfied by depositing biological materials with the Patent Office, but this is unlikely to happen. Another reason is that the final product that emerges from a years-long regulatory approval process is not always identical to the product described in the patent. There is also a mistaken view that patents and trade secrets cannot protect the same product. It is true that a singular feature cannot be both patented and kept as a trade secret, but a single product may have different features that are protected under one regime or the other.

Mr. Aaronson also pointed out that a single drug may be protected by many patents. Some of the know-how simply involves knowing how to properly combine the patented technologies.

Q: If most of the medical innovations occur in wealthy nations, IP laws will lock developing nations out, at least initially. Is there a way to include developing nations earlier in the innovation process?

All panelists agreed on the importance of this issue, as well as on the fact that it’s much easier said than done. Prof. Rai said that every nation must begin to create its own manufacturing capacity to avoid reliance on others, but this requires large amounts of human capital and infrastructure. The problem really goes beyond medicine to the balance of rich and poor nations generally. Mr. Laster said this is the sort of thing he was working on with PATH, which has created some networks, but there is a long way to go. Building the required skillsets and infrastructure locally takes time, but public-private partnerships can help. Mr. Aaronson said that it’s essentially like asking a nation to stop being a low-income country. It’s a somewhat circular issue, in which money is required to build infrastructure, but infrastructure is required to make money. However, this is where IP is not the problem; it is the solution. A strong IP system can create the necessary investment incentives to begin building a better future in any nation.

Closing Remarks

In closing, Prof. Rai said that “regrettably, the public debate on the . . . waiver has been very simplistic.” She hoped that the panel had “shed some light” on the issue and thanked her fellow panelists for a respectful and productive dialogue. Mr. Last er agreed that “it is a complex topic” but said that “it’s not about the waiver;  I do think there are mechanisms that can lead more likely to the outcomes we want.” Mr. Aaronson finished by saying that “we all have the same goal, to figure out ways to bring medicines and vaccines to patients, no matter where they are in the world. We’re fortunate and thrilled that our vaccine has had that potential to change lives, and our goal is to continue . . . to ensure access” to both this and to future vaccines.

A recording of the panel is available here.