On Wednesday, 5 May 2021, the United States announced its support for a proposal at the World Trade Organisation to temporarily waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines. To learn more about this proposal and how it could help bring an end to the pandemic, we spoke with Rafael Vilasanjuan, Policy and Global Development Director at ISGlobal and member of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
What do you think of the US government’s decision to support a temporary patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines?
It is a brave decision and a step in the right direction to end the pandemic. The US has made an unprecedented decision to address an unprecedented crisis. Remember, you can’t end a pandemic of this nature by vaccinating everyone in your country; you end it by immunising the entire world.
You can’t end a pandemic of this nature by vaccinating everyone in your country; you end it by immunising the entire world
What does a temporary patent waiver mean?
It means that any manufacturer would be able to copy a vaccine or its components in order to produce it in their own country and sell it for a limited period of time.
What effect would a temporary patent waiver have on vaccine production?
This is an extremely complex and nuanced issue. For example, contrary to what you might think, it would not lead to much of a production increase in the next few months.
Why can’t we expect a production increase in the short term?
The vaccines available at the moment are technologically very advanced. The more traditional ones have not yet reached the market. Therefore, the vaccines that can be produced now require a great deal of technological capacity and knowledge. To give you an idea, Johnson & Johnson considered around 100 suppliers and only found nine or ten that met the necessary standards to produce its vaccine. So would a waiver mean that everyone could produce an exact copy of the Pfizer vaccine? Not if there is no knowledge transfer. Not if there is no technology transfer.
This is an extremely complex and nuanced issue. For example, contrary to what you might think, it would not lead to much of a production increase in the next few months
Are there any countries with the capacity to produce these vaccines?
There is a small amount of production capacity in a handful of countries with experience in drug manufacturing. With a minimal amount of technology transfer, those countries would be able to start manufacturing vaccines. This could open the door to production in countries such as South Africa, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries.
Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels
Would this lead to an increase in the number of doses available in the medium term?
Even if the patents are temporarily waived and there are countries with production capacity, the current vaccines are complex and time-consuming to manufacture. You have to get factories up and running. You have to see who is in a position to do it. You have to monitor the production systems and do quality control. So it will take time to increase production capacity in this way.
However, remember that this temporary waiver would also apply to vaccine components. That could yield collective benefits in a shorter period of time, since it is easier to produce components than it is to produce a vaccine. A waiver could also alleviate bottlenecks in the supply chain: there are laboratories that have the capacity to produce components but are not doing so because of patents.
What are the political implications of this announcement by the US government?
The US has taken a step towards curbing the pandemic at the global level. It is an intelligent decision that does not call the system into question but would make it more flexible, so that the entire world could start returning to normal. Politically, it puts considerable pressure on the European Union, which has so far opposed the waiver and will now find it very difficult to hold their ground on this issue.
The US has taken a step towards curbing the pandemic at the global level. It is an intelligent decision that does not call the system into question but would make it more flexible, so that the entire world could start returning to normal
What must happen in order for the temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents to come into effect?
A decision by the World Trade Organisation, which operates on the basis of consensus. India and South Africa proposed relaxing patent protections back in October. More than 50 countries expressed their support at the time, and the proposal has gradually gained momentum ever since. US support is likely to prove decisive.
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Do you think it is time to abandon the patent system?
Some people consider the patent system a failure and argue that it should be done away with. However, the fact is that no valid alternative currently exists. We know that the system has problems, not least the dilemma of producing for the market or producing to solve public health problems. The market always takes precedence, since that is where the profits are. Still, there is no alternative that would guarantee the necessary mechanisms to continue research and innovation. However, waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines for the duration of the pandemic would not affect this capacity. In fact, it would provide certain kinds of flexibility that would place pressure on laboratories to transfer their knowledge. In this sense, we should welcome this move.
What is ISGlobal’s position on patents?
At present, the innovation and development system for biomedical products responds more to market needs than to public health needs. We have been working for some time on alternative proposals that prioritise solving health problems rather than treating them as chronic conditions. In the meantime, we support using all existing forms of flexibility, including temporary patent waivers, when circumstances require—as our current circumstances certainly do.
At present, the innovation and development system for biomedical products responds more to market needs than to public health needs
Tell us about your proposal for the innovation system.
We are still working on the development of the proposal. The main idea is to create a responsible purchasing mechanism, whereby states would reach purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies that meet a number of requirements, including responsible behaviour to guarantee the accessibility and affordability of biomedical products.