COVID-19 Vaccines v. Intellectual Property Rights by Cassie Hightman

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photo by Anjali Pinto

Historically a defender of intellectual property protections, the US government shocked many when it announced its support of temporary patent waivers for COVID-19 vaccines at a World Trade Organization meeting on May 5, 2021. With the goal of expanding vaccine distribution to developing nations, South Africa and India first pushed for the legal right to manufacture generic versions of the COVID-19 vaccines. Since then, the idea to temporarily waive patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines has sparked a world-wide debate. Despite recent support in favor of patent waivers from the US (as well as China and Russia), the debate rages on. 

In what has been labeled as a pro-health move during a global health crisis, proponents of the patent waivers seek to increase supplies and allow for local production of COVID-19 vaccines around the world without threat of legal action from the companies that hold the patents. Over 60 countries have argued that patents held by pharmaceutical companies prevent them from locally manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. Low-income countries have fought to suspend these intellectual property rights for months. Currently, more than one hundred of the World Trade Organization’s 164 member nations are said to be in favor of temporary patent waivers for the COVID-19 vaccines. 

However, critics of patent waivers, like the European Union, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan and PhRMA (a political advocacy group that represents pharmaceutical companies, like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson) have pushed back hard against patent waiver measures. Those in favor of upholding intellectual property protections argue that patent waivers will trigger a competition for materials and compromise the quality of the vaccines. In addition, critics argue that patent waivers would eliminate incentives for pharmaceutical companies to update the vaccines for virus mutations. 

Leaders of the World Trade Organization, which requires approval of all 164 members to make a ruling, have encouraged member nations to reach an agreement on the subject. World Trade Organization members are set to debate the patent waivers in June. At the meeting, the European Union plans to present an alternative proposal, which European Union officials say would better protect pharmaceutical companies’ patents and increase the availability of COVID-19 vaccines for developing countries. The European Union’s proposal was submitted to the World Trade Organization on June 4th.