Debating IP waivers will fuel pandemic innovation

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftLetterForskning

The below text displays the original letter submitted on May 6th 2021. It has been published on May 12th in the Financial Times in a shortened form and with a different title due to editorial decisions on which the authors had no influence.

Dear Letters Editor,

Why U.S. support for the Covid IP waiver alone won't solve the vaccine problem

Following Wednesday’s announcement by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai that the Biden-Harris Administration supports the temporary suspension of intellectual property (IP) for COVID-19 vaccines, levels of optimism are understandably high that improved global access to coronavirus vaccines can be achieved in the foreseeable future.
This is a dramatic about-turn from the situation last October, when the original proposal by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) provisions on IP rights in the TRIPS Agreement was roundly opposed by high-income countries. Wealthy nations argued that strong IP is essential to incentivise new inventions of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments. They stressed that equitable access can be achieved instead through voluntary licensing, technology transfer arrangements, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) COVAX initiative.
Yet problems remain before a global response to the pandemic can be achieved. WTO decisions require consensus and many high-income countries still oppose the IP waiver.
Even with unanimous support, negotiations over international IP can drag on for years, as we saw with the process begun by WTO Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health in November 2001, which resulted in a temporary waiver that became permanent only in January 2017 (and, even then, with an often criticised and bureaucratic solution which made the processes virtually unworkable).
The U.S. proposal for an IP waiver on COVID-19 vaccines is also far are more limited than the original India-South Africa proposals from late last year, leaving in place the IP on therapeutics, N95 masks, diagnostic kits, ventilators and many more IP-protected products that can prevent, contain and treat coronavirus.
Even if IP on the vaccines is waived, know-how not disclosed in patents and trade secrets might still present formidable hurdles for the production of complex biologic drugs. This applies in particular to mRNA vaccines that are difficult to manufacture, and require reliable supply chains and highly skilled medicines agencies for their approval.
Yet extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Since this is a global pandemic of unprecedented proportions, it is understandable why initiatives to temporarily set aside IP are gaining momentum. The Covid IP waiver alone won’t solve the vaccine problem but it is our hope that the current focus on the role of IP will trigger more nuanced debates and more innovative pandemic responses.

Professor Duncan Matthews, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Timo Minssen, University of Copenhagen

The abbreviated published version is available here:

TidsskriftFinancial Times (London, 1888)
StatusUdgivet - 11 maj 2021

ID: 272003200