Intellectual Property waiver on COVID-19 innovation is unnecessary and harmful

Megan Van Etten
Megan Van Etten May 23, 2022

Intellectual Property waiver on COVID-19 innovation is unnecessary and harmful.

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In two years, biopharmaceutical companies have gone from zero to 13 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses produced. They’ve worked across the industry and on every continent to meet the global demand for COVID-19 innovation. Yet global trade officials will gather for the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in June to debate whether and how to allow countries to confiscate intellectual property (IP) rights for pandemic-related products as part of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. Here are three reasons that underscore why it’s unthinkable to focus on IP waivers, and where policymakers should concentrate efforts instead.

We have more than sufficient vaccine supply.

There are more than enough COVID-19 vaccines to meet demand, with 13.7 billion doses produced to date and the capacity to make an estimated 20 billion by the end of this year. When IP waiver advocates originally proposed the TRIPS waiver, they noted a need to speed up production. Yet, meeting the world’s demand for COVID-19 vaccines happened without upending IP rights. Now we are seeing developing countries asking to pause donations, some countries destroying doses due to low demand, and South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination plant risking closure due to a lack of orders.

IP has facilitated progress.

The robust U.S. IP ecosystem helped turn COVID-19 vaccines and treatments from idea to valuable innovation for patients – innovation that’s still being further researched and developed today. And strong IP protections, voluntary technology transfers and partnerships got us to this point where we can make more than enough COVID-19 vaccines for the world, alongside other innovations such as treatments and tests. Upending this system would curb such amazing progress and leave us less prepared for the next pandemic.

Leaders need to address the real challenges.

Global leaders should focus on the real challenges of distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to people around the world, such as last-mile distribution, supply chain issues and low demand. The true challenges around distribution, and not supply, have been acknowledged by world leaders for months. Jeff Zients, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, recently said, “Vaccine supply is no longer the constraint to getting shots in arms around the world.” UNICEF’s head of advocacy, Lily Caprani, said that the IP waiver “is probably neither necessary nor sufficient” to address the remaining barriers to vaccination, including distribution, health care capacity and vaccine hesitancy. The recent commitments around the 2nd Global COVID-19 Summit focus primarily on distribution and infrastructure as well. Rather than working to undermine IP, the WTO should be focused on a robust trade and health agenda that strengthens the rules-based international trading system in response to COVID-19 and future health crises.

Efforts to waive IP commitments have proven unnecessary and would be harmful to our collective work to end the pandemic and continue innovating for the next global health challenge. Leaders from nations and multilateral organizations around the world have noted that COVID-19 vaccine supply is not a barrier to access. So, why are officials entertaining a waiver that will do nothing except upend the very innovation ecosystem responsible for current and future progress?

Topics: Intellectual Property, Coronavirus