Diluting intellectual property (IP) rights will dis-incentivise medical innovation and divert attention and resources away from the structural reforms that SA should be pursuing. So argues Chris Hattingh, deputy head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations, in a Business Day analysis.
Hattingh says despite the speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were successfully developed, many countries, including SA, continue pushing for the dilution or removal of IP rights in the pandemic prevention, preparedness and response instrument at the World Health Organisation (WHO). But this would in no way guarantee increased access to current and new vaccines, he argues.
"Vaccines and medical therapeutics development require serious investment of expertise, skills, time and capital. The negative effects would reverberate worldwide, affecting emerging markets worst. Undermining IP is not the correct route to unlock increased vaccine access, and will place SA in a weakened position.
The country was ranked 44th on the 2021 trade barrier index of the Property Rights Alliance. By improving its score and removing trade barriers, SA would do more to encourage an environment conducive to trade, skills development and medical innovations.
SA must urgently accelerate competition in the electricity-generation and distribution spaces; without a reliable, cheap energy supply, IP waivers will do nothing to increase vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Aspen Pharmacare completed a deal in March to package, sell and distribute Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. Yet the predicted demand has not materialised. CEO Stephen Saad warned recently that the company might have to repurpose about half of its vaccine-production capacity.
This indicates that IP rights are not the problem regarding vaccine manufacturing and distribution. Governments must examine how they can resolve distribution bottlenecks before seeking to undermine global IP.
Strong property rights and respect for contract law, especially by governments, are crucial for the economic growth mix otherwise countries have little prospect of increased growth, job creation and technological advancement.
Without strong IP rights, it becomes less likely that voluntary technology transfers will happen between companies in different countries. Such voluntarism is based on co-operation, appropriate training and resource-sharing.
Vaccines, medical therapeutics development need serious investment
In April 2021, India imposed export restrictions, meaning global pooled vaccine procurement mechanism Covax was about 190m doses behind schedule by June 2021. This delayed the response to the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. That hurdle could have been avoided.
A possible path towards a more stable global IP framework would be for governments to commit to free flow of global supply chains for vaccines and disease treatments during pandemics. If the WHO took the lead on this, it would re-energise the organisation.
As more countries head out of COVID, it is imperative that pro-trade and pro-innovation policies be adopted. Countries protecting IP and the rule of law will attract the new companies, skilled people and risk-taking that will result in medical benefits.
Conversely, countries pursuing more protectionist policies and pushing for policies that undermine ease of trade and investment globally could suffer negative consequences."
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