India’s desperate coronavirus plight is again focusing attention on a burning priority: how to get vaccines more quickly to poorer countries. India and South Africa launched a call last October for the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property protection, known as Trips, on medical tools and technologies related to Covid-19, including vaccines. Many low-income countries as well as human rights and campaign groups have backed the demand. Such a move would, however, be no magic bullet. Other steps would potentially have a faster impact.
The case for waiving Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights provisions is that local pharmaceutical companies and generic drugs manufacturers could then quickly begin producing vaccines. Campaigners draw parallels with HIV and Aids, when for years patients in richer countries received expensive, patented treatments while sufferers in developing countries missed out. They add that since pharma companies received US, UK and EU money to help fund vaccine development and build up production, there is less need than usual to earn hefty returns to recoup their costs.
Drugs companies counter that they still had to make big outlays, and suspending patents would be a disincentive to put money into developing next-generation vaccines — vital to maintain immunity as the virus evolves. They add that mRNA — deployed for the first time in the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — is an expensively developed “platform” technology they plan to use in other innovative products. Waiving Trips would unfairly force them to hand it to rivals, including countries such as Russia and China.
Unlike medical treatments made from chemical compounds, however, the latest vaccines are complex beasts that require greater knowhow and stringent quality control. It is not clear whether many local or generic manufacturers could start production on their own, even if patents were lifted.
There are better alternatives. First, global pharma companies should create more partnerships among each other, and sign more licensing deals with local producers elsewhere that include providing expert support. Indeed, to fend off a Trips waiver, vaccine makers may need to show they can move faster in doing such deals.
Some are happening. The Biden administration brokered a partnership for Merck to manufacture doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab; in Europe, Novartis, GSK and others are helping Germany’s CureVac to produce an experimental mRNA vaccine. Including its high-profile licensing deal with the Serum Institute of India, meanwhile, AstraZeneca has contracted manufacturing capacity at 25 sites in 15 countries. The World Health Organization is trying to encourage controlled technology transfer on mRNA vaccines through regional “hubs”.
If such ventures are to succeed, action is needed to address raw material shortages and bottlenecks that are slowing manufacturing — ranging from lipids and enzymes to glass vials and specialised plastic bags. Production of such materials needs to be stepped up and any export controls removed.
The US also said last week it would share 60m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from a stockpile with other countries, setting an important example. The US, EU, UK and several other rich countries have all purchased at least four doses per inhabitant. As soon as they have vaccinated their most vulnerable populations, they should begin donating surplus supplies to the developing world. Wrenching pictures from India, Brazil and elsewhere should spur them to do so.