For over a month now, scientists, politicians and advocates around the world have been calling for President Biden to waive intellectual property laws and allow other companies to start manufacturing the highly successful Covid-19 vaccines created by Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson. Advocates of waiving the patent rights say that the world is currently experiencing a vaccine apartheid: While wealthy countries have more than enough shots to go around, many low-income countries still haven’t been able to get access to any Covid-19 vaccines at all. This move could allow manufacturers around the world to start producing authorized Covid-19 vaccines, in theory increasing supply to disadvantaged countries.
This week, the push for this proposal gained more momentum as Covid cases have surged around the world. While the U.S. is getting the virus under control, many countries around the world haven’t been so lucky. The crisis in India continues to grow, and crucial medical supplies have been running out for days. One of those is oxygen, where demand is far outstripping what that country can produce. While companies like Eli Lilly have pledged to donate medicine to the country, acute shortages are leaving desperate people willing to look at purported cures that don’t work.
On Wednesday, the Biden Administration stated it was in favor of waiving some of these intellectual property rights. The announcement was met with praise from many public health experts—but some people were less thrilled than others. For the most part, the pharmaceutical industry came out against the idea, arguing that waivers would stifle innovation but not actually lead to more vaccine production. After the announcement, the stocks of several big companies that have created vaccines for Covid-19, including Pfizer and Moderna, quickly plummeted. Analysts on Wall Street, however, generally agreed that waivers wouldn’t harm the bottom line of vaccine producers.
It does appear to be true that just waiving patents isn’t enough to boost vaccine production. Experts say that the real issue isn’t intellectual property, but rather supply chain and manufacturing. Even if other companies are given the “recipes” for how to make a Covid-19 vaccine, they likely don’t have the right equipment or training for their employees. This is particularly true for the new mRNA vaccines, which have specific manufacturing requirements. Analysts from Morgan Stanley further note that waivers could actually slow current vaccine production down by disrupting the limited supply chain for materials.
It’s not just the pharmaceutical industry that is against the waivers, though. Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said it might not be the fastest and most effective way to boost vaccine distribution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also against the idea, and her support is crucial—the actual decision on whether to waive patents comes from the World Trade Organization, and without Merkel’s support, the organization won’t be able to vote in favor of removing the IP restrictions.
We’ll have to see what happens in the upcoming days and weeks. In the meantime, if vaccines can’t be quickly distributed around the world, innovative treatments might be our next best bet to end the pandemic.