Never before in history has something similar been done: develop a vaccine in months instead of years. And it is possible that before the end of 2021 a therapy will be available to treat the first symptoms of the coronavirus. The scope of the pandemic, in fact, sparked a tsunami of innovation across the world. world to respond to the health emergency on a local and global scale. Y not only in the pharmaceutical field, also when developing telematics solutions, de data management and even robots to help people cope with social isolation.
Patents thus performed in full frenzy an indispensable role in research, the development and commercialization of these innovations that cannot be underestimated, as pointed out by the Foundation for the Information Technology and Innovation (ITIF). But intellectual property rights are also seen as a barrier in fighting the coronavirus more quickly and ending the pandemic. It is what prevents, according to critics, that the United States can export the doses that are left over.
“Preserving these barriers is morally wrong”, argues Lori Wallach, from the Public Citizen organization. She is one of the great experts in the field of international trade. President Joe Biden proclaimed last Wednesday that America became an arsenal of vaccines, in a pun similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s arsenal of democracy to confront the Nazi regime during World War II. But To share them with the rest of the world, you must first temporarily lift the protection.
As Wallach explains, temporary exemption from intellectual property rights It will allow developing countries to produce more vaccines and that will allow faster progress towards the goal of achieving group immunity. The risk of not doing so, he warns, is that a significant part of the population has limited access to treatment and that can result in the virus becoming more resistant. The question is whether you want to entrust this technology to poor countries.
And not only that, when considering options to maximize global vaccine production the cost to pharmaceutical companies is also taken into account. Joe Biden himself makes it clear that he needs time before making a decision. “There are multiple ways to do it”, explains White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, without going into much detail, “we have to see what makes the most sense” when it comes to helping third countries contain the pandemic. The most effective option would be to reinforce vaccine production in the US and export them.
As analyst Jaci McDole from the ITIF notes, The pandemic prompted many rival companies to enter into voluntary licensing agreements to scale the fight against coronavirus, provide seed money, technical support and maintain quality controls throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain. Patent protection, he adds, is used for a lot rather than to litigate or try to block a rival from the market.
“Result of years of development and investment”
Andrei Iancu, former director of the US Patent Office, therefore insists that the development of the vaccine in less than 12 months does not happen by chance. “It is the result of years of development and investment”, he explains, “but it is also the result of technology transfer between rival companies, large and small.” Without that protection, he adds, “that collaboration would never have been possible, because they would not have felt safe and would have kept their secrets hidden ”.
The debate is complicated. Bill Gates is one of the most vocal and prominent figures in advocating mass vaccination as the main weapon to combat the pandemic. However, he does not consider it a good idea to temporarily suspend patents. What’s more, he does not believe that the problem is in intellectual property and he remembers that vaccines do not leave a factory by magic. It is a process, he adds, that must be closely monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that the vaccine is fully safe.
Gates anticipates that vaccines will begin to reach the countries furthest behind in three to four months, because the immunization process is already well advanced in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. He admits that it is not fair that an American teenager is receiving his dose today while an older person in Brazil is still waiting. But neither is it a surprise that rich countries have decided to prioritize their populations before thinking about the rest.
Stephen Ezell affirms from the ITIF that there are many myths about patents and he considers it a mistake that intellectual property is seen as a barrier in the fight against the pandemic. Professor Mark Schultz adds that the skepticism is explained by a lack of knowledge of the innovation process behind the vaccine. Furthermore, it considers that removing protection is not the best way to ensure an equitable distribution. “There is no precedent for a collaboration like the one we have seen with vaccines”, concludes Andrei Iancu.