Covid-19: The Debate On Vaccine Patent Explained

The debate on vaccine patents borders on the idea that everyone should be protected from the coronavirus. It is not enough that the vaccines be created, world leaders could do more to support vaccine availability.

Till now, many countries in Africa have been left struggling to boost vaccination rates, worse off with the current shortage of COVAX vaccines as India struggles with increasing cases of the virus.

This week, the US voiced its support for a temporary lift on the patents on vaccinations to unable a boost in vaccine production. Some countries. however, pushed against it, insisting there are better options.

Understanding Vaccine Patents

TwentyTen Daily defines Patents as legal rights that protect an invention from being recreated or sold.

Like other medicines, vaccines are covered by patents which provide legal protection against being copied.

Patents give makers the rights to their discoveries as well as the means to make more money from them – which is an incentive to encourage innovation.

An article published on Fox Business revealed that Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine cost about $39 in the United States and £28 in the EU. The vaccine company expects the vaccine to bring in revenues of approximately $15 billion with the supply of up to 1.3 billion doses of the vaccine worldwide by the end of 2021. 

On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, vaccine manufacturers Johnsons & Johnsons reported  $100m in sales of its COVID-19 vaccine.

These profits are impressive but these are not normal times.

The Debate For Vaccine Patents

The demand to waive vaccine patents was raised at the World Trade Organization by many countries including India and South Africa.

They argued that, given the extreme nature of the pandemic, the recipe for the life-saving jabs should be made widely available so they could be produced locally in bulk by other manufacturers.

The proposals were met with immediate criticism from pharmaceutical companies and Western nations including the EU, UK and at that point the US.

Laboratories also opposed to this because, according to them, it would deprive them of a return on their costly investments.

Note that most of the costs involved in vaccine production are incurred in research and development: the manufacturing bit tends to cost less.

Another key argument from vaccine producers and their home countries is that waiving patents alone wouldn’t solve much. It would, they say, be like handing out a recipe without the ingredients or instructions.

The patent covers the bare bones of the blueprint but not the precise production process. That’s crucial here. Vaccines of the mRNA type – such as Pfizer and Moderna – are a new breed and only a small number of people understand how to make them.

BioNTech, the German company which partnered with Pfizer, have said that developing the manufacturing process took a decade and validating production sites can take up to a year. The availability of the raw materials needed has also been an issue.

Industry bodies fear that without access to all the know-how and parts, a waiver could result in quality, safety and efficacy issues and possibly even counterfeits. They point out that Moderna has already said it would not prosecute those found to be infringing their patent – but no one has yet.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has stated her position as the body’s head.

“My job is to make sure that I bring WTO members together, to negotiate a text that would lead to a pragmatic solution that would guarantee access for developing countries, to address the inequality of vaccines, while making sure that we don’t discourage research and innovation. This is where we are. The recent statements from the US and other countries will, I’m sure, give momentum to the negotiations.”

While France has rallied to the US position, Germany has strong reservations and believes that patents should continue to be “protected” because “they are a source of innovation and should remain so in the future”.

For the German laboratory BioNTech, patents are not the limiting factor in the production and supply of vaccines. It believes such a measure would have no effect “in the short and medium-term” as it usually takes a year to set up and validate new production sites.

Patsy Nwogu

Reporting on data-driven featured stories and investigations.

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