On 5 May, President Joe Biden announced that the US will support waiving intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines. This will remove obstacles for ramping up production of vaccines in developing countries, particularly in those regions most severely hit by the pandemic, like Latin America where the second wave of contagions is proving more virulent than the first one.
The move comes as several infectious variants of the virus are overwhelming health systems in Brazil and India. The impact of this is not only a matter of national concern but also poses global public health risks as it favours the appearance of new COVID-19 variants.
In addition to suspending intellectual property rights for vaccines, the measure will be coupled with global initiatives such as the COVAX campaign, seen as a crucial platform to speed up vaccination worldwide.
The vaccine waiver could take months to negotiate, facing tough opposition from pharmaceutical companies and several countries fearful of the precedent it would set.
A respected intellectual property lawyer in Argentina reported that the initiative looked hard from a legal perspective, “Considering only the legal point of view the announcement is just an expression of wishes, it has no teeth. It is only the beginning, but they talk about suspending the validity of the patents which is unconstitutional or illegal in nearly every country. There are legal alternatives such as ‘compulsory licenses’, which amount to a kind of soft expropriation that might be better.”
“Considering only the legal point of view the announcement is just an expression of wishes, it has no teeth.”
Intellectual property lawyer, Argentina
A senior executive in the pharmaceutical sector in Argentina was equally doubtful from a commercial and effectiveness angle, “The Argentine pharmaceutical sector is strong and globally it would appear to be one of the great beneficiaries from this initiative. However, for the initiative to work there would need to be a global agreement between countries, pharma companies, vaccine manufacturers, distributors etc, this would take longer than the pandemic! If anyone is allowed to manufacture vaccines there are also problems with quality etc.”
The complexity of the negotiations means it is unlikely that countries like Argentina can benefit from this announcement in the short term. Therefore, Argentina resumed talks with Pfizer at the end of April to speed up a supply deal, and at the same time the government of President Alberto Fernández is working to speed up vaccine supplies from China and Russia.
An industry consultant agreed, “I don’t think the problem of vaccine scarcity is going to be solved in the short term by releasing patents. The problems are about supply chains, production capacity, logistics, infrastructure etc, these won’t be solved by releasing patents. The announcement has triggered a negotiation with many stakeholders and it is unclear how it will end.”
“The problems are about supply chains, production capacity, logistics, infrastructure etc, these won’t be solved by releasing patents.”
Pharmaceutical industry consultant
The consequences of removing intellectual property protection are still unclear, although trade experts suggest pharma companies could issue voluntary licences or, alternatively, the US could buy the patents from the current manufacturers outright based on their discounted future value.
As for Latin America, the immediate priority is to increase the supply and distribution of effective vaccines by any means possible.