COVID-19 highlights the importance of IP to vaccine development

In the effort to provide timely and efficient supply of vaccines to the public during the coronavirus epidemic, tensions have arisen between pharmaceutical companies seeking to protect their patents – and people around the world keen to receive the vaccine. 

While wealthy nations have already vaccinated large numbers of people, challenges to vaccine rollout exists in developing nations where financial and supply-chain barriers limit access to the vaccine. At present, global demand for the vaccines is several times higher than global supply, creating an urgent need to increase capacity. As a result, many have called for the waiving of COVID-19 vaccine patents to allow third-party manufacturers to produce more.

At present, however, the patent system is not aligning with what is needed during a pandemic to ensure timely rollout of vaccines. Among the challenges includes a patent system which pays for innovation in the future, resulting in slower innovation today, when accelerated vaccine creation is vital. Too, patents permit pharmaceutical companies to block competitors and raise prices, delaying the battle against the virus. At the same time, the US patent system has in recent years seen an expansion of patentability along with a relaxation in patentable requirements. This has led to the growth in the number of patents being granted (a five-fold increase since the early 1980’s), which serves as a potential impediment to vaccine creation.

A patent system which is designed to provide protection for maximizing benefits and reducing costs, can be utilized by governments to help encourage the technological advances necessary to combat the virus more rapidly. This might include tax credits for research and development, and direct support from government, including awards for inventions.

In developments in reaction to these impediments, the US announced earlier this year that it would support the waiving of IP protections for COVID-19 vaccines under WTO agreement on trade related property rights (TRIPS). Some responded by suggesting this was symbolic as vaccine patents are not the major obstacle to vaccine availability. Rather, they argue, what is most needed is an increase in vaccination supply via greater logistical and supply chain efficiency.

The pharmaceutical industry has argued that without patent protection, innovators will be discouraged from developing new drugs. Striking a balance, however, might permit exclusive rights to be valuable enough to encourage innovation, while not expansive enough to limit output and downstream innovation. 

Beyond the US specifically, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) is a worldwide initiative aimed at securing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.  COVAX is directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization. This initiative is an example of how the private and public sectors might find ways to increase technology transfer and IP knowledge sharing among pharmaceutical companies. 

Efforts at national and international level might include encouraging drug makers to undertake vaccine R&D efforts without requiring patent protections, instead relying on direct government support. Generous government payments are likely to encourage R&D innovation in times of health crisis, as they did in the production of antiviral drugs to combat HIV/AIDS.

Overall, efforts by governments and public-private sector initiatives have indeed helped to increase vaccine availability. More can be done, however.