Two years ago, WHO officials declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. While the world is still grappling with COVID-19, the need to anticipate and prepare for future pandemics is even more apparent now. Anew report from the Geneva Network explores the role of intellectual property (IP) as an essential tool for pandemic preparedness and warns of misguided attempts to waive IP rights, which would only hinder progress. Here are some key takeaways.
- Calls to waive IP rights are completely misguided; IP has proven to facilitate – not impede – solutions to the current pandemic. Innovators came together to offer multiple tools in the fight against COVID-19 in record time, with IP as the “bedrock.” The first vaccines and therapies emerged before the end of 2020, mere months into the pandemic. By the end of 2021, there were 12 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured, according to Airfinity, and Covax expects enough doses this year to meet its commitments to participating countries. This progress was made possible thanks to IP – from the research that informed the latest technologies to the licensing and partnerships that brought solutions to those who needed them worldwide.
- Waiving IP for future pandemics would disrupt progress and leave the world reliant on models that have failed to deliver needed solutions. The current pandemic aside, critics still assert waiving IP rights would help developing countries prepare for the next pandemic. However, “the global IP framework has supported the creation of a diverse and competitive market of innovative and low-cost vaccines” as well as “the investment and innovation needed to scale up vaccine manufacturing to meet global demand in record time.” Weakening IP would not only “undermine the incentive to invest in new technologies and treatments…it would disrupt the international manufacturing collaborations and partnerships that have proved so indispensable to the current pandemic.”
- Further, an IP-free or “open source” model – touted as a potential solution for future pandemics – is unproven two years into the pandemic. This open source model has failed to produce any vaccines (e.g., Corbevax, University of Helsinki vaccine). Alternatively, vaccines protected and supported by IP (e.g., Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford University/AstraZeneca) have moved quickly through clinical development and into mass manufacturing and distribution, supported by a network of contract partners.
- Case studies around waiving IP for other technologies illustrate it’s not the right approach for future pandemic preparedness efforts. Lessons learned from local manufacturing of HIV antiretrovirals further forewarn of the complex nature of manufacturing innovative technologies and the need to work within the constructs of IP rights frameworks. When African nations attempted to scale up antiretrovirals by leveraging compulsory licensing, which allows others to use an innovator’s IP without their permission, their products were “uncompetitive with those available on global markets” and they lacked reliable infrastructure and talent to advance the products from manufacturing to market.
- There are practical solutions to focus on, including investing in research and incentives, addressing trade barriers and improving distribution. There are solutions we can advance to better prepare for the next pandemic while preserving the very innovation ecosystem responsible for so much progress. Geneva Network notes that government funding of basic research into vaccines and treatments can grow our knowledge and expertise. In addition, governments can incentivize vaccine production through procurement contracts and commitments. Further, governments should work to remove trade and regulatory barriers that can impede supply chains. Finally, improving distribution capabilities – from infrastructure and organization to personnel and last-mile efforts – all can help ensure patients can access needed treatments and vaccines.
The support of IP will only allow innovative solutions to thrive, and not be diminished. Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic and appreciating the role of innovation in delivering tools to help end the pandemic, the Geneva Network underscores that we must coalesce around solutions that maintain and strengthen the innovation ecosystem to be prepared for the next global pandemic.
"Many of the proposals [to waive IP] would be extremely deleterious to pandemic research and development incentives. IP is the bedrock upon which almost all of today’s COVID-19 vaccines have been built.” – Philip Stevens and Prof. Mark Shultz