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Science to Save the World: US Cancels COVID-19 Vaccine Patents

The United States decided to revoke vaccine patents. Now the developments of scientists are available to everyone. US President Joe Biden believes that this will help to quickly defeat the COVID-19 pandemic in the world. Writes about it with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

Negotiations to suspend vaccine patents have been going on since last fall. They were attended by 164 countries that are members of the World Trade Organization. After more than six months of negotiations, things got off the ground as the most influential opponent of patent cancellation, that is, the United States, suddenly changed from anger to mercy.

"The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for emergency measures," the White House said. "The goal of the administration is to ensure that as many people as possible have access to safe and effective vaccines as soon as possible."

The pharmaceutical giants are furious. They are losing money and warn that patent cancellation will lead to unnecessary competition for vaccine components and risk a drop in quality and, as a result, confidence in their developments.

Cancellation of patents will allow other companies to start producing vaccines, but it can take years to build capacity and organize the entire process. Some countries and companies argue that there are better ways to scale up existing production, remove restrictions on vaccine supplies, and address component stocks, transportation, and vaccine management issues.

Who asks to revoke patents and why

In October 2020, South Africa and India asked for patents to be revoked, and since then, they have been supported by about half of the WTO members, mostly from developing countries.

There are several reasons for this, some countries hope that there will be more vaccines and they will get enough doses. Others, for example, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, are ready to organize the production of vaccines themselves, provide themselves with them and earn money on exports.

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Both Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Health Organization have advocated open, shared access to all technologies to combat coronavirus. The head of the WHO did not hide his joy over the change in the position of the United States.

“I welcome the decision of the United States. It is of historic importance for ensuring the well-being and equal access to vaccines for all people around the world, without exception, during this difficult time, ”said Tedros Adanom Ghebreyesus.

A patent protects intellectual property and temporarily protects inventors from competitors who have not spent on research and development of technology, but are ready to immediately use it and earn money. Thanks to such protection, pharmaceutical companies for the duration of the patent receive the exclusive right to release the drug and determine with whom and under what conditions to share secrets, and, accordingly, profits.

Will it help end the pandemic?

Most vaccine patents and manufacturing are in wealthy countries. Until they vaccinate their own, the rest can wait and hope for their own developments (as in India, Russia, China) and the supply of Chinese or Russian vaccines. Therefore, they ask to share either the vaccine material or the technology.

According to epidemiologists, including the American Anthony Fauci, more than 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to defeat the pandemic. The current pace is poor.

More than 1,2 billion vaccinations have already been made worldwide, and pharmaceutical companies promise to produce 10 billion doses of vaccines by the end of the year. However, 40% of vaccinations went to 11% of the world's population in 27 rich countries, while countries with 11% of the poorest population accounted for only 1,6%.

It turns out that the richer part of the world's population is vaccinated 25 times faster than the poorest. At this rate, some developed countries will reach the cherished level of 70% in August, while most of the poor countries will take another three years.

Rich countries with developed science and pharmaceutical industries have purchased vaccines in huge doses. Doctors, philanthropists and politicians urge them to share. They started a large-scale Covax program under the auspices of the UN, but so far things are not going very well there.

“The authorities of all states are striving, first of all, to vaccinate medical workers and the older generation. That's right, - said Gebreyesus. “But it’s wrong when young and healthy people in rich countries get vaccinated before doctors and old people in poor countries.”

Who is against the cancellation of patents and why

First of all, pharmaceutical companies are against the abolition of patents. Those who invent and sell drugs are accustomed to patent protection and are very unhappy with the prospect of losing it, even if only temporarily.

“People cannot be saved with such a turn in established American policy,” replied the American Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Developers Association PhRMA. "This empty promise will not remove the main obstacles to vaccination, especially the lack of raw materials for the production of vaccines and the difficulties with organizing the vaccination campaign in the field."

The international federation IFPMA is of the same opinion, which called the US position a disappointing and erroneous attempt to find a simple solution to a complex problem.

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The plans of the pharmaceutical companies to make money on the patented vaccine turned out to be a big question, as a result of which the developers' business fell sharply - their shares collapsed on the stock exchanges immediately after the White House was announced.

In addition to the loss of super-profit, the cancellation of the patent makes it impossible to earn at least something on their own invention, since other companies will be able to compete for components for the production of the vaccine, which are already in short supply.

In other words, pharmacists may have resigned themselves to the fact that besides them, someone else would make a vaccine according to their formula until the coronavirus was defeated, but in conditions of a shortage of components, they risk getting unexpected competitors in the fight not only for the client, but also for raw materials, without which they themselves will have nothing to sell.

Another problem is the difficulty in organizing the vaccination campaign. It is especially relevant for the American Pfizer, since its vaccine, developed by German scientists, requires deep freezing, which complicates delivery.

In addition, even in not the poorest countries, organizing large-scale and effective mass vaccination, following the example of the Israeli, British or American, is problematic due to the lack of an effective health care system and public administration in general.

And even if it is possible to deliver hundreds of thousands of doses, then it is unlikely that it will be possible to inject them all in time.

Why did the US change its mind

This was due to both internal and external political reasons.

On the one hand, the vaccination campaign in the United States is losing momentum: everyone who wanted to have already been vaccinated, those who remained are lured with baseball tickets, beer and money. There is no shortage of vaccine, and the voices of advocates for equality and global health are growing louder.

Especially now, when one of the initiators of the abolition of patents, in this case India, is experiencing a catastrophic wave of a pandemic.

On the other hand, Biden is actively returning the United States to the world stage after four years of estrangement under the slogan "America First", during which his predecessor Donald Trump managed to sabotage the work of both the WTO and the WHO.

Biden is acting under a different slogan: "America is back." He canceled his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, stopped protecting American Internet giants from taxes in other countries, and now he has set out to resolve the dispute over vaccine patents at the WTO, despite the objections of pharmaceutical corporations.

Who supported the USA

Until now, the developed countries, led by the Americans and the Europeans, have been opposed to any indulgences in the protection of intellectual property as long as they have no reason to accuse China and other countries of stealing technology.

Therefore, they greeted the offer of India and South Africa cool. Countries with a developed pharmaceutical industry were especially opposed.

Great Britain and Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Norway, Brazil and all the same USA were not going to give the case a move.

However, after Biden's unexpected reversal, some changed their tone. The European Union announced that it is ready to discuss the US proposals. Non-EU Norway has hinted that it is not opposed to making concessions. And France, which has not yet managed to make an approved vaccine, supported the Americans with both hands.

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And only Germany disapproved of this and said that it is very supportive of universal access to vaccines, but the problem is not in patents, but in lack of production capacity and in quality control.

When everything is decided

Not soon. All 164 members of the World Trade Organization will have to negotiate, and in a normal situation it would take years. The pandemic and the US position will help shorten this period, but only to months, not weeks.

It may help that Biden agreed to drop the objection only if India and South Africa also meet halfway and reconsider their original requirements.

They asked to be given rights not only to vaccines, but also to drugs and equipment for the treatment of COVID-19, as well as access to clinical trial data - until the pandemic ends. Biden proposes only a temporary waiver of vaccine patents.

The WTO is awaiting a response by mid-May, and the first formal discussion of the new proposals is scheduled for June 8-9.

But even if everyone agrees at the state level, companies reserve the right to delay and even reverse the whole process by going to courts with claims for violation of both local laws and international agreements.

Waiver of patents is not a panacea, nor is it a placebo. The threat of losing the protection of their intellectual property, albeit for a while, will keep pharmaceutical companies in good shape and may push the West as a whole to look for other solutions to the main problem - how to quickly make the coronavirus vaccine available to everyone around the world.

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