Over the past several months, groups in several countries, including Mexico, Korea, Canada and Chile, convened events to discuss the critical role of intellectual property (IP) in advancing global vaccine equity, enabling continued research and development of COVID-19 medicines and supporting pandemic preparedness. With the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of IP Rights (TRIPS) Council October meeting and ministerial meeting elevating these issues in the near term, we’re highlighting key themes from this international dialogue that should not be overlooked as global leaders discuss these important issues.
IP Makes Innovation Possible
Mariana Gonzalez is an IP rights expert who spoke during an event hosted by the Fundación IDEA and Geneva Network in Mexico and underscored the direct relationship between IP and innovation that benefits people worldwide: “The worst scenario for access to health or to a medicine is when the treatment for a disease does not exist. In this sense, intellectual property provides a temporary exclusivity in exchange for providing a medical solution.…Intellectual property has been understood from its initial conception as an incentive to provide solutions – if we do not have the solutions, we do not even have [anything to] access.”
Economics and business professor Christina Acri echoed this sentiment in Canada, at an event co-hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Geneva Network. She showcased what has been possible since the pandemic began, facilitated by IP: “It’s important to recognize that IP has given us competing vaccines that give us a variety of technologies that we can use and implement.…That competition is healthy, and it enables multiple companies to develop these things, which increases the availability.”
IP, technology and law scholar Mark Schultz reflected on the power of progress in supporting innovation at the same discussion in Canada: “If this pandemic had happened 10 years ago, we wouldn't have the [COVID-19] vaccines we have now. We have those vaccines because of tremendous investment and innovation.”
IP Facilitates Collaboration, Especially with Complex Innovation
Speaking to the event attendees in Mexico, Professor Schultz further emphasized the role of IP as a necessary element in driving partnerships, given the significant investment involved in developing innovation: “You will never give your secrets to somebody else; you will never teach them how to make your product, unless you have the security that your intellectual property rights will protect your exclusive rights to make that product.”
At an event hosted by Innovation Economy Forum and Geneva Network in Korea, affordable medicines advocate Prashant Reddy noted progress already on the ground in India, stating “there have been at least four voluntary licenses between foreign vaccines developers and Indian manufacturers.” Such progress underscores how patent licensing and other proper knowledge transfer processes are essential to facilitate collaboration and safe manufacturing of needed innovation.
Minkeun Bae, an IP expert also speaking at the Korean event, supported this theme by adding: “The technology gap between pharmaceutical companies that developed and manufactured vaccines and those that do not are currently quite large…[With] transfer of intellectual property rights, as others have already fully explained…it is almost impossible to mass-produce a vaccine with the same efficacy by transferring only some important key patents or core processes,” which makes patent licensing and other proper knowledge transfer processes, grounded in voluntary and mutually agreed terms.
And Chilean under-secretary Rodrigo Yáñez, at an event cohosted by Libertad y Desarrollo
and Geneva Network, emphasized the need for collaboration from the perspective of global trade, in order to get solutions to those who need them: “We believe that a correct functioning of the international trade system is required to scale the production and distribution capacity of medicines [and] medical technologies – especially of vaccines to combat COVID-19.”
Restricting IP Only Hurts Progress
Professor and former Director of Korea National Institutes of Health Kevin Kee-Jong Hong outlined the detrimental impact of a potential TRIPS IP waiver on innovative technologies, which has been proposed at the WTO, and specifically the waiver’s potential to hinder current COVID-19 vaccines and the pandemic response: “The most important impact of the [WTO IP waiver] is probably related to the production of the existing COVID-19 vaccine. This is because [the waiver] will have a direct impact on the technological aspect creating a barrier to vaccine manufacturing and hindering our ability to respond to a crisis situation, a pandemic.”
Professor Schultz added at the same event, “Right now, vaccine developers are working with partners in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America. They are looking for more partners. But they cannot safely partner with companies in countries that take away IP rights…[As such,] the waiver could do much more harm than good.”
Canadian Chamber of Commerce executive Mark Agnew spoke to the importance of staying focused on the task at hand, not on misguided anti-IP policies: “Right now companies are trying to get approvals for vaccines for children, which requires clinical tests to make sure they are safe. At the same time, we are adapting the mRNA technology for new variants as they emerge, and if the IP system is upended, it's going to create sort of all sorts disruption for the development that still does need to occur.”
At the Chile event, IP expert Alex Galetovic took a practical approach and showcased the need to look at the true barriers standing in the way of global vaccine equity: “The IP system has a lot to do with the fact that one in three people in the world is vaccinated. However, surely to reach other parts such as Africa, public solutions are needed. It is very difficult to think that just an IP waiver is going to magically get [people] vaccinated in Africa. What Africa needs are vaccines and a logistics distribution system; removing IP protection is not going to do much for that.”
The Bottom Line: IP Waiver Does More Harm than Good
The time is now to focus on what will truly help end the pandemic, and the experts’ perspectives from these recent events underscore just how important it is that global leaders and decision-makers continue to protect IP rights and resist the temptation to misguidedly pursue a silver bullet “solution” like an IP waiver. As Professor Christina Acri noted clearly during the Canadian event, “COVID vaccines are priced virtually at cost and there are other factors beyond IP that need to be addressed to achieve global access.”
In helping innovators build on their amazing progress by keeping a strong IP ecosystem intact, and focusing on addressing the real barriers standing in the way of getting vaccines and treatments to people who need them, leaders can help curb COVID-19 and pave the way for success with future global health challenges. As experts in these in-country events emphasized, calls to waive IP will do more harm than good and only ignore – and even exacerbate – the real work that needs to be done to protect and save lives.