World leaders should acknowledge that IP protections facilitate vaccine access

December 24, 2021, 11:46 AM UTC
Developing countries are struggling to store, distribute, and administer the vaccines delivered under the COVAX scheme.
Sia Kambou—AFP/Getty Images

While too much of the globe remains unvaccinated for COVID-19, the problem isn’t lack of supply. On the contrary, warns Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, the world has already stored “more Covid shots than it can use.”

At least five African countries have requested a moratorium on vaccine shipments, concerned they can’t be distributed before spoiling. The glut will soon be worldwide: Airfinity, a scientific forecasting firm, says we’ll have a global vaccine surplus by mid-2022.

Yet the U.S. seems unaware of this reality. Days after the Omicron variant was detected, President Biden once again urged widespread support for a petition originated by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to “waive intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally.”

This statement assumes there’s a global shortage of vaccines, which an intellectual property (IP) waiver would address. That’s plain wrong–on both counts. 

Today, no one can seriously claim that our main problem is a lack of supply. Across 92 lower-income countries served by the vaccine distribution organization COVAX, half have used less than three-quarters of doses received. Millions of doses have been destroyed because they couldn’t be distributed before expiry. No one has put forth a remotely plausible claim that waiving IP rights would address these distribution problems.

Indeed, IP protections deserve the lion’s share of the credit for why we have vaccines at all, and why we’ve developed them so quickly.

Biopharmaceutical innovation is inherently risky. Only 12% of promising compounds ever win approval for patient use, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in annual research and development investment.

Patents and other IP protections provide the incentive to invest, especially for start-ups and smaller enterprises. Without such investment, we’ll be shutting lab doors not only on new cures but on the preparedness that enabled us to respond with vaccines for COVID-19 in record time.

IP protections also ensure that global demand is met through properly licensed, safe, and authorized manufacturing facilities–as is the case with COVID-19 vaccines. The level of cooperation is unprecedented, with manufacturing and distribution agreements around the world. This is possible because companies rely on the rule of law for protection as they share their technologies.

The response to the pandemic has already demonstrated conclusively that we can manufacture and distribute vaccines worldwide while maintaining IP protections.

Clearly, though, we have access problems. A lack of storage, shipping capacity, and health care infrastructure impedes last-mile delivery in many locales. Vaccine hesitancy is a factor, as is local red tape. Export controls, including in the U.S., have limited production and distribution. We must do much more to increase global vaccine access.

The way to do so is by addressing these specific issues. Instead, proponents are doubling down on their IP-waiver crusade, despite a total lack of evidence that it will achieve its purpose.

In truth, this debate was never really about the pandemic. Governments that sponsored the waiver petition sought to exploit a crisis to bolster their own drug industries. That’s why they continue to press their case even though many have more vaccines than they can deliver. They would like free access to the processes into which American investors have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars.

For anti-IP activists, the demand for a waiver consolidates a worldview in which corporations– here, pharmaceutical companies–are evil. Politicians grandstanding in support of a waiver are virtue-signaling to their activist base.

They shouldn’t be so cavalier. Gutting IP rights would do real damage. Companies invest in innovation on the assumption that their business model won’t be dismantled if they succeed.

Intellectual property protections have made the U.S. the undisputed leader in global life-science research. As we deal with a mutating virus, we need more such investment, not less.

Andrei Iancu, a partner at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, is the co-founder of the Renewing American Innovation project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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