The Biden administration’s decision to waive intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines was met with ebullience from the global health community and an assortment of political leaders. It was a move that’s put other developed countries under pressure to follow this lead. Developing nations haven’t had the kind of success in their immunization campaigns as have wealthier countries, owing to a lack of underlying medical infrastructure (for instance, the ability to store large amounts of vaccines at proper temperatures) and a host of logistical problems.
But what happens next? The sharing of intellectual property is a massive step, as experts tell Fortune, but the ultimate proof of its effectiveness will boil down to what’s happening on the ground. And that necessitates a more involved process to build up manufacturing and distribution capacity in the nations facing the brunt of the COVID crisis.
“One thing I know for sure is that it’s not going to solve any immediate problem,” says Brad Loncar, a biotech investor who is a bit weary of the precedent the Biden administration’s decision sets given the biopharma industry’s inherently risk-driven nature. “The No. 1 thing I hear on Twitter and in the media and everything is India’s going through a true emergency. Which it is, but this isn’t going to solve that problem.”
For instance, Loncar points out that mRNA vaccine technology, which fuels the Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines, are relatively new and may take thousands of steps on the pathway to production. You can’t exactly wave a wand and create facilities capable of that craft by ripping down some IP red tape.
That’s not to say it isn’t important. In fact, it emphasizes the need for an even more proactive approach to assist developing nations, as Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s access to medicines and knowledge economy group, says. And the ultimate hope is that developing nations can help upgrade existing manufacturing plants across the world to speed up vaccine production.
“We think what you do is you retrofit existing vaccine manufacturing facilities, probably with mRNA, though you could use another technology. But mRNA is quite adaptable,” he says. “We think a couple of billion dollars or so could get us to the needed capital expenditures to install all the equipment.” Public Citizen this week released a report calling on the Biden administration to institute a $25 billion global manufacturing plan for COVID vaccines to supplement the IP decision.
That issue of adaptability will be critical going forward. Biotech skeptics point to the real-world hurdles and last-mile delivery problems in impoverished nations trying to quell the coronavirus. But, as Maybarduk puts it, nothing changes if you don’t try. Just take the example of Lonza, the Swiss chemicals and drug giant that’s been on the front lines of COVID vaccine production.
“No one had any experience making mRNA vaccines a year ago. And now, we do have hundreds of millions of doses going around the world,” he says. “So those facilities have been retrofitted, and the staff and plants in Germany, and at Lonza, these other places, were trained in three months to get it done and get their facility set up.”
In short, turning the dream of a more democratized COVID immunization campaign will depend on a very brick-and-mortar reality—and far more aggressive investment from the global community.
More health care and Big Pharma coverage from Fortune:
- The COVID vaccine is set to make up more than half of Pfizer’s 2021 revenue
- Pfizer’s COVID-19 treatment pill could be available by year’s end
- Forget vaccine jabs—next-generation COVID-19 pills and nasal sprays are on their way
- We probably won’t reach COVID herd immunity. So why are states already reopening?
- T-shirts, bonuses, and paid time off: How companies are incentivizing workers to get a COVID vaccine as new guidance looms
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