Why a Covid vaccines patent waiver will be yesterday's solution

Today, there are far bigger challenges that won't be addressed by the Biden administration's proposal

Demonstrators hold a rally to "Free the Vaccine," calling on the US to commit to a global coronavirus vaccination plan that includes sharing vaccine formulas with the world to help ensure that every nation has access to a vaccine, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, May 5, 2021. US President Joe Biden's administration announced its support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, and will negotiate the terms at the WTO. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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For a sense of the political potency of vaccines at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic, ask British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

As the results of last week's local council elections are tabled, the ruling Conservatives have secured a significant political victory that cements Mr Johnson's place in power for the foreseeable future. An opposition Labour politician, when asked what made the difference in the totemic victory in the north-eastern port town of Hartlepool, said all that people on the doorstep talked about was ending the pandemic.

With more than 50 million doses administered, the UK is a titan of the vaccine effort. Elated by the voting results on Friday, Mr Johnson said his challenge now is to turn “jab, jab, jab into jobs, jobs, jobs”.

However, progress made in the inoculation drive by countries such as the UK has caused ructions over equitable global access to the vaccine. Last week, US President Joe Biden surprised observers by calling for talks on a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and therapies.

Having once favoured the concept, I think this would be a bad idea.

At the outset of the pandemic last year, there was an argument for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to use its rules to signal an open market for vaccines. The move would have signalled the WTO’s relevance at a time when then US president Donald Trump’s trade policies had depleted the organisation. It would have allowed companies working on the emerging vaccines to take a far more collaborative approach. Global facilities capable of producing vaccines could have converged on a grand collaboration.

Plus I believe in the wisdom of crowds being the best support to the invisible hand of the market. But if there was a time to take that approach, it is surely gone.

As French President Emmanuel Macron has lamented, there has been a role for the courageous in the pursuit of vaccines. Contrasting the slow rollout in Europe with the Anglosphere’s breakaway, he lamented the risks that other states had taken with private business, such Washington’s moonshot project.

Yes, there is a lack of fairness in the global vaccine rollout. But the supply bottlenecks are not the product of a refusal to use capacity well.

In the first instance, the biggest problem has been the monopolising of raw materials that go into making the vaccine. On Friday, Mr Macron lashed out at the “Anglo-Saxons" for blocking "lots of ingredients”. Albert Bourla, the head of Pfizer, has also forecast an ugly scramble for raw materials that affects the security of all.

There is no doubt much work to be done in this regard; India was only promised more of these supplies when its infection rate reached calamitous levels last month. But at the level of intellectual property, there is no magic bullet in this idealistic offer.

Moderna has already said it would not enforce its patent, which is quite a noble gesture. The company, after all, had been working on its overnight success for the Covid-19 vaccine for more than a decade. Yet it has not seen anyone come forward to replicate its technologies. That may be because mRNA vaccines that it and BioNTech are producing involve next-generation technologies, and it is far from certain that random facilities in Bangladesh or South Africa could produce the doses needed.

In any case, these facilities are increasingly benefiting from licensing agreements that are needed by the more established vaccines makers. If pharma manufacturers spurn these deals to pursue their own output, there will be interruptions in supplies and not the planned increases.

Expansion of vaccines' output is steadily coming online anyway. BioNTech and its partner Pfizer are on track to increase their deliveries to three billion doses this year from 1.2 billion in 2020. AstraZeneca is similarly pursuing a three billion units target.

FILE - In this April 1, 2021 file picture, World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a news conference at WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The head of the World Trade Organization said Friday, May 7, 2021, the U.S. administration’s call to remove patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines will give an impetus to negotiations to resolve access inequity but such a waiver might not be the “critical issue” against the pandemic. (Denis Balibouse/Pool via AP)
A populist but almost certainly naive initiative could do more harm than good

Moreover, if there is a problem with the vaccines now, it is that some companies are charging developing countries 10 times the price of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Hence, removing or waiving patent rights at this juncture is the wrong policy at the wrong time.

Mr Macron has given Mr Biden his backing. However, even his own arguments undermine that position. “You can give the intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce it," he conceded. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is unmoved. She sees intellectual property frameworks as the lynchpin of innovation. While India and South Africa have gained Mr Biden's support at the WTO, it seems a hard core of countries will talk the proposal into the long grass.

The quest for the vaccine is filled with winners and losers.

Another beleaguered international body, the WHO, supports the WTO proposal. Yet, the WHO has approved just five contender vaccines for emergency use. The established vaccine makers have faced quality control problems with ramping up their output. Issues such as fill-and-finish – bottling and distributing them to you and me – have also derailed delivery schedules.

No one doubts the WTO needs to establish its place as the beating heart of the global trade system. But a distracting exercise in pursuing a populist but almost certainly naive initiative could do more harm than good.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National