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Intellectual Property on Covid-19 Vaccines

Global population needs to get vaccinated to end this pandemic. If we want to regain that spontaneity in our lives, something we treasured and lost on March 12, 2020, we need to be on the same page with this.

The swiftness of the formulation and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines is something I marvel at. When I think of how the flu pandemic of 1918 ravaged the world’s population, I shudder. At the time, there was no flu vaccine and a third of the population got infected. Fifty million died, including 675,000 residents of the US.

Now, scientists the world over came up with vaccines in less than a year after the pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization. And,  I am in awe.

What would require for the world to get back to a semblance of normalcy. This is a monumental challenge for the leaders of countries and pharmaceuticals like Moderna Inc, Pfizer Inc, AstraZeneca/Covishield, Janssen Vaccines – all with vaccines presently being distributed worldwide – and Novavax Inc which is conducting clinical trials so it can release its vaccine for distribution. Add SinoVac by SinoVac Biotech, Sinopharm, and Sputnik by Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and we are presented with a variety of vaccines. However, it is not a smorgasbord. We get what is offered to us, as advised by scientists and medical doctors. 

Accessibility to these vaccines has always been a matter of debate and concern especially for low- and middle-income countries. Rich countries with money to spare have placed big orders for Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, leaving poorer countries to rely on COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing initiative by wealthy nations. In its editorial dated March 30th, 2021, Nature, the science journal with a website nature.com, stated that about 11 billion shots of COVID-19 vaccines are needed to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population, assuming that two doses are required for each person. Poorer countries account for 80% of people in this planet; yet, to date, these countries have access to less than a third of available vaccines. The ideal situation would be that manufacturing and supply of these vaccines be evenly distributed to end this pandemic but, of course, the ideal is often not real. Rich countries have placed orders with small group of companies for the availability of vaccines to their people, leaving poor countries to wait for COVAX to distribute the vaccines, which to date falls short in its weekly deliveries.

In October 2020, India and South Africa initiated a campaign of 100 countries asking the World Trade Organization for a “time-lifting of COVID-19 intellectual property rights”. The proposal calls for a temporary waiver to patents and technology of these vaccines to enable developing countries to manufacture and distribute them. The proposal is that the waiver will remain in place until the world has been vaccinated against this virus.

Intellectual Property (IP) refers to any intangible creation by a person’s mind, notably patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. Developed during the 17th and 18th centuries, its application started in the 19th century and by the 20th century, it acquired status in the courts and became an issue for litigation. We see IP in novels, fiction or non-fiction, works of art, songs, recipes, etc. India and South Africa  leading the request for a temporary waiver of the IP of vaccines hope that this issue will be addressed in next month’s 47th G-7 summit at the UK.

Initially refusing the waiver but later on relenting to it, US President Biden issued a statement that his administration will not block any effort to “loosen IP protections”, referring of course to the COVID-19 patents. It should be noted that the US may be the only country where supply has exceeded the demand for this vaccine; thus, it may be turning the corner in this pandemic which claimed 587,867 deaths to date among its residents. Canada and Germany refuse to grant this waiver request. In CBC’s website of May 7th, 2021, Canada’s PM Trudeau did not endorse waiving IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines but instead offered to provide $375 million to Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator “to help develop, produce and distribute diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for low- and middle-income countries” which is on top of the $940 million already promised to ACT and COVAX. German Chancellor Merkel opposed the waiver, stating that it undermines efforts by companies working on innovative medicines and does not fix the global supply since there are few countries equipped to manufacture vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna. 

Currently, there are four vaccines approved for vaccination to residents in Canada. Pfizer/BioNTech opposes any IP waiver on the ground that its vaccine is not a barrier but rather the solution to this pandemic. Moreover, even if the company were to share its patent, no facility would have the technology to produce the mRNA vaccine. Moderna which has 7 patents, on the other hand, is willing to “license its intellectual property to others after the pandemic to eliminate barriers to vaccine development”. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have a liberal approach to this waiver. They have publicly pledged the development and distribution of their vaccines without profit and collaborate with licensed companies to vaccinate the world’s population ” in a timely manner”.

No question, these vaccine makers have profited so much from the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer expects vaccine sales of at least $26 billion. First quarter 2021 earnings from Moderna are $1.73 billion, AstraZeneca, $275 million, and Johnson and Johnson, $100 million. Waiving intellectual property on the patents of these vaccines during this pandemic sends a strong message from pharmaceuticals and the rich countries which contributed to the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines. The message being that they are “willing to forego profit for the greater good”.  Cliche as this may sound and I’m sure you’ve heard it said many times during these past 14 months – we are all in this together. And, if I may add – to get to the end of this pandemic, we need to help each other.

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