US Support For Waiving COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Rights Puts Pressure On Drugmakers – But What Would A Waiver Actually Look Like?

The U.S. and Europe are debating waiving patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, a move that could allow more companies to produce the vaccine around the world. But it’s not as simple as it might sound.

When the U.S. announced on May 5, 2021, that it supported the idea of a temporary waiver, the statement was vague. Some European countries still oppose even a narrow waiver.

Any agreement will take weeks of negotiation among the World Trade Organization’s 164 members, and then months more for production to begin.

That long timeline won’t solve the immediate problem. Many poor countries have vaccinated less than 1% of their populations, while 44% of the vaccine doses have gone to Europe and North America, where wealthy countries secured large vaccine contracts. At the same time, the disease is spreading quickly in South Asia, and new variants are raising the risks around the world.

The idea of temporarily waiving World Trade Organization rules on intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 vaccines was first proposed by South Africa and India in late 2020. The original proposal was broad, covering patents, copyrights, trade secrets and industrial designs related to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.”

The U.S. is suggesting a much narrower approach, but exactly what that would look like isn’t yet clear.

Some European countries with vaccine industries, including Germany, argue that waiving intellectual property rights would pose a danger to future vaccine innovation and is unnecessary. Others pointed out that most countries in need lack the facilities, technology and skilled technicians to produce the vaccines even if patent rights were waived, and said the bigger problem was countries like the U.S. and Britain preventing their vaccines and ingredients from being exported to the rest of the world.

Critics are correct that, by itself, a temporary waiver is not sufficient to address the gap in production. They are correct that vaccine ingredients and other supplies remain a major blockage.

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Disclosure: This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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