Many of the scientists and campaigners who helped persuade Joe Biden to back an intellectual property waiver for Covid vaccines are urging the US president to go further and force vaccine makers to hand over their technology.
Scientists and progressive advocates celebrated last week’s decision by the Biden administration to back ending companies’ rights to enforce IP protections on Covid vaccines. But they say that if the administration wants to end the pandemic within the next 12 months, it must persuade or compel companies to share their knowhow with potential rivals in the developing world.
“The waiver was a huge step, but technology transfer needs to be next,” said Zain Rizvi, a researcher at Public Citizen — one of the groups which led the campaign in favour of an IP waiver for vaccines. “The president needs to deploy all the authority and force of his position to make this happen.”
Asia Russell, executive director of Health Gap, one of the global health organisations the Biden administration consulted in its decision to back the IP waiver, said: “We’re not going to get this by asking pharma nicely. We have to compel companies to share their technology, we have to mandate it.”
The World Health Organization last year set up a fund called Covax, under which richer countries fund poorer ones to pay for doses of vaccines. But vaccine doses are in limited supply across the world, and many rich countries secured supplies early on by paying billions of dollars to help with their development.
Since the first Covid-19 vaccines were approved late last year, production has increased quickly in richer countries such as the UK and US, but has lagged in poorer ones. While the US has fully vaccinated 36 per cent of its population, India, which has been devastated by the recent wave of infections, has only vaccinated 2.8 per cent.
Scientists say the divide poses not only a moral problem, but a public health one if the virus is allowed to mutate and become vaccine resistant in unvaccinated parts of the world and then spread elsewhere.
Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, announced last week the Biden administration would back a move at the World Trade Organization to waive patent rights on Covid vaccines, in the hope that it would allow manufacturers in the developing world to make their own vaccine copies.
But many experts say that even if the WTO waiver proposal secures the necessary support of every member, production will not rise quickly enough. Instead they want companies to hand over instructions for how to make their vaccines to other companies around the world, even if that ends up undercutting their own revenues.
They say it is especially important to do so with mRNA vaccines such as those made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, given they can be modified more quickly to deal with potential emerging variants.
Amy Kapczynski, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School, said: “We have to get as many people vaccinated as we can, as quickly as possible. Many manufacturers are capable of standing up production in the medium- to long-term without technology being transferred. But to do it in the short term, technology transfer is essential.”
Biden said last month: “I think we’ll be in a position to be able to share vaccines as well as knowhow with other countries who are in real need.”
But since then no deals have been announced between US vaccine makers and manufacturers abroad, leading some to call for more aggressive action from the administration.
While criticising the White House’s patents decision, Steve Ubl, chief executive of the industry association Pharma, warned last week of the risk of “handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery”.
One possibility is that the president could use his powers under the Korean war-era Defense Production Act to seize companies’ technology on the government’s behalf and then share that with other countries.
Another is that the government could use its own patents to force vaccine makers’ hands. Moderna in particular has used a patent in its vaccine without a licence from the National Institutes of Health, which invented that piece of technology.
Barney Graham, one of the NIH scientists behind the patent, told the Financial Times last month that it gave the government “leverage” over companies to boost global supplies.
Alternatively, the administration could set up an organisation to act as a third-party broker negotiating technology transfer deals on behalf of US manufacturers.
The Clinton Foundation plays this role with HIV drugs, and says it has helped bring down costs by 100 times in certain parts of the world. The WHO has already launched a Covid-19 patent pool for companies to share their IP, and experts say this could also prove a global technology broker if needed.
The White House did not comment, though administration officials say they are focused on increasing supply in the US and exporting it rather than helping set up manufacturing abroad.
Many worry, however, that such a policy will keep prices excessively high and not provide the speed needed to vaccinate the world before more worrying variants emerge.
Matthew Kavanagh, assistant professor of global health at Georgetown University, said: “This has happened before, so there is no reason it cannot happen again. Companies need to say to the government: ‘Here is our technology, you find the folks to make it.’”