Over the past two years, intellectual property (IP) rights have been repeatedly attacked by governments around the world. When the COVID-19 vaccines hit the market, there were immediate availability problems for millions, if not billions, of people who wanted to get vaccinated but couldn’t because there weren’t enough vaccines available. This prompted politicians from across the political spectrum to make populist calls for vaccine IP rights to be simply abolished, or at least paused.
These collectivist policies would not only have unfairly deprived vaccine makers of the profits they had earned through outstanding work but would also have discouraged innovators from ever attempting to resolve any future major health crisis. It would also have been an odd conclusion to the pandemic, considering the intellectual property system has enabled the development of multiple new, safe, and effective vaccines in record time and the manufacture of billions of doses, saving hundreds of millions of lives.
Abolishing or weakening IP rights for vaccines and therapeutics would be highly counterproductive. It would undermine the incentive to invest in research and development (R&D) for new technologies and treatments. Especially in the case of pandemics, vaccine manufacturing requires rapid growth that depends on robust IP regimes that facilitate collaborations and partnerships between the private sector, researchers, academia, governments, and other organizations to deliver treatments and therapeutics worldwide (such as, to cite a recent example, between Pfizer and BioNTech). These international manufacturing collaborations and partnerships, which have proven essential to saving millions of lives in the current pandemic, would be destroyed and the weakening of IP rights would make the world dependent on untried and unsafe research models. A look at the COVID vaccines that were planned to be developed as IP-free also shows that this would hardly be a promising venture: while the most important vaccines were all associated with secured IP rights, those projects that tried to get along without IP, largely failed.
Rather than restricting IP rights in the event of a pandemic, it makes more sense for governments to focus on concrete actions to accelerate equal access to vaccines and therapeutics, particularly harmonizing regulations and lowering trade barriers. In terms of harmonizing regulatory requirements, there are currently at least 51 pathways to different types of accelerated vaccine approvals. When each country conducts its own testing of a vaccine, the manufacturer has to go through 190 different regulatory procedures. By harmonizing regulatory regimes, approval could be faster and access easier. Second, trade restrictions have caused major delays in vaccine distribution. For example, export restrictions imposed by India in April 2021 resulted in COVAX shipments being around 190 million doses behind schedule by June 2021. Expanding free trade could speed up the production and distribution of vaccines in times of a possible future pandemic.
Protecting and strengthening the R&D environment, including robust protection of IP rights, should be at the heart of future pandemic planning to ensure the development of multiple vaccines and therapy options and their widespread and rapid availability.
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