International Consensus: Intellectual Property Protections Are Not a Barrier to Vaccine Distribution

On Tuesday, the Property Rights Alliance held a webinar titled “Responding to the TRIPS Waiver: Global Voices on Intellectual Property, Innovation, and Access to Vaccines.”  This discussion highlighted the debate on the protection or suspension of IP rights on COVID-19 vaccines for their accelerated production and distribution.

Proponents argue that the campaign to suspend intellectual property rights via the TRIPS waiver to the WTO led by South Africa and India, now with the support of the Biden Administration, will result in more doses reaching peoples’ arms. But intellectual property rights are not a barrier, rather a vital component to ensure vaccines are of high quality and efficacy, as well as to further incentivize and fund medical breakthroughs.

Both sides have the common goal to vaccinate more people. To date, more than 3.73 billion doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 49 doses for every 100 people. In the USA, more than 49% of the population is fully vaccinated.

PRA’s webinar highlighted the fact that there is already broad international consensus amongst policymakers and the think tank community in Brazil, Germany, Canada, and the USA that “IP rights are the only guarantee for innovators to own the know-how, the knowledge and to recoup R&D costs to invest in the next generation of medicines” as Executive Director of PRA, Lorenzo Montanari indicated in his opening statement.

Senator John Barrasso (WY-USA) emphasized the importance of innovation and IP in American history. The Founding Fathers recognized the significance of property rights – both physical and intellectual – in Article 1 of the Constitution. The American spirit of discovery thrives today as the USA leads the world in terms of research and development, but “if we hope to lead in the future, then we must carry on the founder’s tradition of protecting ideas” as Sen. Barrasso noted. Furthermore, waiving patent protections not only goes against America’s history and rule of law but offers U.S. technology and know-how “on a silver platter.”

MP Randy Hoback (Canada) notes that IP rights are erroneously linked as a barrier to vaccine distribution but the TRIPS waiver “is not the problem.” Those against the TRIPS waiver wish to distribute vaccines in an “equitable and timely manner” without undermining IP rights, quality assurance processes, and de-incentivizing companies from investing in R&D. The real problems of vaccine rollout are the lack of and sufficient manufacturing facilities, as well as getting rid of trade restrictions that interrupt the free flow of supply lines with raw materials and vaccines.

Both Sen. Barrasso and MP Hoback emphasize the dangers of sharing IP rights especially with China given the repeated threat and occurrence of IP and trade secret theft.

Secretary of Competition Advocacy, Geanluca Lorenzon (Brazil) noted a breakthrough by Brazil to not join India and South Africa on the TRIPS waiver, as well as the embrace of the free market movement under Jair Bolsonaro. He highlights that the main issue regarding the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is not IP rights. Partnerships between the British-Swedish vaccine of AstraZeneca and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil were made possible by intellectual property. The main issues are obtaining raw materials and scaling up complex manufacturing.

EPP Trade Policy Advisor, Amelie Giesemann (Germany) notes the EU has submitted in June an alternative proposal to rival the TRIPS waiver initiated by South Africa and India. Giesemann highlights “the EU proposal builds on existing flexibilities that are in the TRIPS agreement to clarify and to streamline the procedure on compulsory licensing.” The EU unlike other regions has taken a stance against IP rights as the bottleneck for vaccine access. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel questioned that the release of patents would lead to more distribution of vaccines. The skepticism is rightfully warranted as seen in Bangladesh. Giesemann recounts that although Bangladesh falls under an existing waiver of the TRIPS agreement, the country cannot manufacture vaccines itself due to the “lack of know-how and technology that would need to be shared” rather than IP rights.

Philip Thompson, IP and Trade Analyst (PRA) concludes that patents are the most important aspect for “mitigating risk to make that type of large-scale investment possible.” Promoting and safeguarding property rights incentivizes businesses to invest in current and forthcoming medical technologies. It is no surprise that according to PRA’s International Property Rights Index of 2020 that “the top 20% of countries with the strongest protections of property rights overall, are home to 73% of the COVID-19 therapies in development.”

Safeguarding international property rights is critical to bridge the medical innovation gap and to ensure vaccines that reach peoples’ arms are of quality and effectiveness. PRA was joined by a record 101 think tanks from 47 countries in a coalition letter to recognize the TRIPS agreement as “the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on IP and the most effective instrument for ensuring that governments take steps to protect IP.”

Moreover, there is already a broad consensus that IP rights are not barriers to vaccine distribution. Governments and the international community must come together on this issue to focus on increasing partnership agreements, resolving logistical challenges, scaling up manufacturing, and protecting inventors’ rights to own and control their works.

Click here to view the webinar.