Producing a Vaccine Requires More Than a Patent
On May 5, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would support an international bid to waive intellectual property rights to vaccines for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, thereby ostensibly allowing other countries to ramp up production even of the sophisticated technology behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines against COVID-19. Many in the global health community and developing world welcomed the decision as a victory for greater equity in vaccine distribution, in which middle- and low-income countries are lagging far behind wealthy ones.
But the jubilation may be premature. The drive for intellectual property waivers originates in part from the world’s experience fighting the last war, against HIV/AIDS. Patent pools, intellectual property waivers, and other liberalizing mechanisms were urgent in assuring equity of access to lifesaving drugs during that epidemic. But these tools are better suited to medicines and other pharmaceuticals than to vaccines. Producing vaccines—particularly those as technologically complex as the messenger RNA (mRNA) inoculations against COVID-19—requires not only patents but an entire infrastructure that cannot be transferred overnight. The sharing of patents is an important and welcome development for the long term, but it may not even be the most pressing first step.
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