Both the European Commission and vaccine manufacturers are not convinced by the potential benefits of waiving the intellectual property (IP) rights of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
The question of suspending IP rights for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines was first tabled by India and South Africa in a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which was backed by around 100 other countries.
The proposal’s supporters argued that this would help speed up the roll-out of vaccines and improve access to other medical products needed to tackle the pandemic as less wealthy countries could rely on their own production.
The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that involves copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents and the protection of undisclosed information.
On 14 April, an open letter was signed by more than 60 former heads of state, including former leaders of the UK, France and Italy, as well as more than 100 Nobel Prize winners, calling on US President Joe Biden to support the suspension.
A temporary waiver is “a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic” the letter reads, adding that “it must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly”.
However, the European Commission does not share this view.
“There are doubts about the benefit of intellectual property rights waiver when compared to voluntary licensing agreements combined with the flexibilities with WTO rules,” the EU’s health chief Stella Kyriakides told MEPs on 22 April.
Other options would be considered only if pharmaceutical companies refused to share innovation, she added. Likewise, vaccine manufacturers do not seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea of waiving IP rights.
In a media briefing organised by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), several vaccine makers pointed out that the main issues for the production of the vaccines are not intellectual property rights but the complexity of supply chains.
Rajinder Suri, CEO of the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN), said a major bottleneck is caused by getting the products needed to make vaccines on time, as for example single-use components.
“For example, if a company is manufacturing 1 billion doses a year, or it has a potential to manufacture 1 billion doses, and you do not supply the material for one month, 100 million doses are gone,” said Suri.
At the same time, without know-how and technology transfer the IP waiver would not have any positive impact.
However, the transfer of knowledge takes time and involves the movement of data, designs, inventions, materials, software and technical knowledge, the vaccine manufacturers stressed.
Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, explained that even if the company is ready for the technology transfer, there is not enough capacity to do that. Moderna is already working with partners in this sense, but adding other companies would be beyond their availability.
”Our teams are working seven days a week to do tech transfers, to enable all of our partners. If I was to take those teams away to do other technical transfers, we will not be able to deliver a billion doses as we are trying to do this year,” he said.
Bancel also pointed out that there was a “constrained supply” for the necessary equipment and materials, saying that “new players” would take material away from those already making vaccines.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Josie Le Blond]