IP rights are rights a key, not a curse, to vaccine development

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While morally appealing, calls for the suspension of intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID-19 vaccines would be a backward and misguided step, argue Mark Schultz and Philip Stevens on BusinessLIVE.

“The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments over the past year is a triumph of innovation. Billions of vaccine doses are being manufactured and should be distributed to all adults globally over the next 18 months.” Despite this, say Mark Schultz, from the University of Akron School of Law in the US, and Philip Stevens, executive director of the Geneva Network, health NGOs and some governments argue that suspending intellectual property (IP) rights to allow unfettered vaccine manufacture will mean faster access for developing countries.

India and South Africa have called a temporary global waiver on COVID-related IP rights to the World Trade Organisation, which has subsequently given tacit support to the idea, warning of a “catastrophic moral failure” caused by unequal access to vaccines.

In their analysis in Business Day, the authors argue that such calls – while morally appealing – are misguided. “IP has played a vital role in every step of vaccine research, manufacturing and distribution,” they say, adding IP rights have proven “indispensable” for the research consortia and partnerships that have emerged to tackle the virus. “IP rights allow potential rivals to co-operate and share valuable proprietary knowledge because they know it is legally protected from misuse,” they say, noting there is little prospect of unfair profits due to the various vaccines available and the competitive market.

Schultz and Stevens say it is better for the owners of vaccines to license their manufacture to partners with the skills and capacity to produce large quantities of high-quality products, which will allow billions of doses to be manufactured over the next few months.

Voluntary IP licensing has been deployed successfully in the past, notably for distributing innovative hepatitis C medicines in lower-income countries. Critics opposed those deals too, at first Schultz and Stevens write.

They argue that a zero IP world would be a backward step and discourage companies from making urgently needed refinements to existing vaccines to combat new COVID-19 variants saying “it would derail the dozens of vaccine-manufacturing licensing deals, throwing global supply chains into chaos. And it would take far longer than letting the manufacturing licensing deals that already exist get into their stride. It’s difficult to see how the transfer of manufacturing know-how would take place under such a scenario.
When the next pandemic comes, few companies will want to invest in new vaccines if they stand to have little control over the output.”

Schultz and Stevens say that misguided calls to suspend IP rights sound high-minded, but the ethical appeal of such actions fades given the harm they would inflict on future generations and ourselves when we face a disease that is hard to cure now.

Instead of sowing division and creating major distractions at venues such as the WTO, opponents of IP should stop the rhetoric. The IP system has accelerated the end of the pandemic, they say. We should let it finish this critical job.

 

Full analysis in Business Day (Open access)

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