In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO) circulated a ‘zero-draft’ of an international pandemic accord to its 194 member states, laying the groundwork for negotiations toward future pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The zero-draft contains numerous provisions on intellectual property (IP) which would weaken the very ecosystem that brought us COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in record time.
The zero-draft document touches upon voluntary licensing agreements “that promote and incentivize relevant transfer of technology…on mutually agreed terms.” Indeed, we have seen voluntary licensing used successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic, including more than 140 voluntary global collaborations that enabled companies to scale up manufacturing and increase access to COVID-19 treatments
However, the zero draft also states members should “support time-bound waivers of intellectual property rights,” which would allow other entities to use innovators’ IP without permission. Waiving critical IP protections only discourages investment in innovation. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, lifesaving innovation enabled the rapid development of multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and changed the trajectory of the pandemic.
What’s more, we already know waivers don’t increase access to innovation. The WTO’s waiver of IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) does not address the most fundamental and systemic barriers to global health safety, which center around infrastructure, distribution, and administration. Indeed, to date, no WTO member has utilized the waiver to issue a compulsory license.
When discussing how best to prepare for the next public health crisis, WHO should respect the independent mandates of other multilateral institutions which are better suited for discussions on IP. As global leaders negotiate this accord at the WHO, it is imperative that they understand how harmful measures like compulsory licensing and IP waivers undermine the global innovation, partnerships and collaborations that helped us combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Strengthening IP rights is vital to preventing, preparing for and responding to any future threat to global health.
“Strengthening IP rights is vital to preventing, preparing for and responding to any future threat to global health.”