It’ll Take More than Patents
Terry H. Schwadron
May 8, 2021
Now that the Biden administration says it will support behind a controversial proposal to waive intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines, will it mean that tons more vaccine will now suddenly be available to poorer nations?
The answer seems clearly to be No — because things are more complicated than settling what many of various political stripes see as moving away from protection of greed on the part of Big Pharma. And maybe because we’re focusing on the wrong questions.
For openers, a World Trade Organization summit opened yesterday to brace this question, and the outcome is not known, since the European Union and Germany in particular, large producers of vaccines, are holding back on support. France has aligned with the new United States position that supports the proposals from India and South Africa to make the code of how to make vaccines available worldwide. Russia supports it, and a number of other developed countries that have opposed the idea now say they are listening.
Big Pharma, of course, opposes this idea, naturally wanting to hold on to its patents and to protect its ownership of drug solutions into the future. Simplifying, they said pulling down patent protection will stall or kill research and development of future cures — and that the marketplace rules.
Of course, nothing halts the same governments from buying it from the pharmaceuticals and giving it to poorer countries, or asking Big Pharma to lower its costs.
But okay, the discussion has centered on the right to maintain secrecy over the special sauces for vaccine-making as if that will solve the problems we face. According to The New York Times, 83% of shots that have been administered worldwide have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries, while just 0.2 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
Obviously, contagious disease does not stay within national borders.
Who Owns Vaccines?
Just who “owns” the code has been controversial since the start of vaccine development, when Donald Trump authorized spending known as Operation Warp Speed to hasten the work. Actually, U.S. and E.U. taxpayers provided most of the financing for vaccine development by Moderna, while Pfizer got money from the German government, and China and Russia provided state funds for their vaccines. U.S. taxpayer money went to several vaccine distributors to guarantee billions of dollars’ worth of purchases.
But India and South Africa argued that this is no time for any country or company to own the manufacturing rights to a vaccine that can halt pandemic, and after a lot of bureaucratic anguish, Biden announced his decision this week.
Still, the realities on the ground tell a different story, one that ought to remind us about the gap in policy announcements, however controversial, brave or disputed, and actual execution that gets the job done.
Even if the WTO approves global sharing of pharmaceutical code, that patent waiver alone would not increase the world’s vaccine supply.
This is more than some theoretical argument between liberal who want shared vaccine manufacture in the name of caring and the greed of a drug industry that wonders aloud about innovation and capitalism.
For openers, vaccine manufacture is not easy. It is time-consuming, exacting and requires extensive supply chains and technical knowledge. Pfizer officials have said the company’s vaccine requires 280 components from 86 suppliers in 19 countries, as well as highly specialized equipment and personnel.
Secondly, effective manufacture needs good supervision. We saw the shutdown of that manufacturing facility in Baltimore where 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines were ruined by mistakes in the technical mixing processes.
So, some level of technical transfer of information, technical know-how and personnel are required here to allow effective vaccine making elsewhere, based on investments in countries that cannot afford such manufacturing plants now.
And then there is the clock. With hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases a day reported in India, the idea of more vaccine manufacturers a year from now or later hardly seems an effective response to the scale of what we’re seeing right now.
Where’s Our Will?
Perhaps the most important question here is not about patent protection but about whether we care sufficiently about the rest of the world.
Just why has this issue emerged from progressives in the United States, backed by Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.? Why isn’t the idea of a strong America arriving on a white horse with adequate supplies of vaccines or oxygen or whatever else is needed a reflection of the political Right as well as the Left?
For that matter, even New York Times columnist David Brooks finds it pathetic that we’ve lost even the national will to do the best for our own common national vaccine effort, never mind the world.
Trump had blocked any sharing of patented information without a lot more to say about global spread, other than to constantly blame China for “starting” the disease and the World Health Organization for not sufficiently blaming China for doing so. Trump sponsored Warp Speed, but never planned for distribution of vaccines even domestically, never mind internationally, and he has been pretty wishy-washy about promoting vaccines as it became clear that large portions of his political base were aligning with anti-vaxx forces over perceived questions of personal liberty.
The reason it is called pandemic and not described as a U.S.-only problem is that we won’t be free of coronavirus while others around the world continue to host it and let it mutate — and then travel here.
Yet, somehow, we hear nothing about this from Republicans who under Trump drifted into the numbness of global isolationism and scorn for anything not American. You would think there would be either a self-protection discussion going on or a desire to use coronavirus help, as Russia and China are actively doing, for international sway, tying help to diplomacy and national branding.
Let’s give Biden a good grade for looking at the whole problem of coronavirus, but remember that none of these singular policies is sufficient to guarantee good outcomes.