ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Putting an end to the global devastation of COVID-19 relies heavily on governments and medical companies to develop and distribute vaccines, treatments and medical equipment. Unfortunately, not everyone has equal access to COVID-19 technology. Intellectual property rights prevent low-income countries from producing generic versions of necessary products and they are often left out of markets completely. The World Health Organization (WHO) is facilitating collaboration of research and development and encourages equitable access to knowledge and technologies.
COVID-19 Vaccines: The Market
Though Russia and China have made progress in developing vaccines, the top vaccines on the market were developed in the United States and Europe.
Pfizer, based in New York, paid for its own vaccine development in partnership with BioNTech, which received some funding from Germany. Moderna, based in Massachusetts, worked closely with the U.S. National Health Institute and received almost $1 billion in U.S. funding, though it will keep all profits from vaccine manufacturing. Wall Street estimates private medical companies will profit $32 billion from vaccine sales in 2021.
Many nations in the Global South do not have the technological capacity to research and develop vaccines. Furthermore, they do not have the funds to secure vaccines for their populations. A group of wealthier countries containing only 16% of the world’s population already purchased 60% of the available vaccine contracts as of mid-January 2021.
How Intellectual Property Works
Enforcement of intellectual property rights, such as copyright and patents, became globalized by the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Under TRIPS, the company that holds the patent for a technology controls who can produce it. This creates a monopoly that can drive up prices and limit access to the nations that are the most profitable to sell to.
For example, Gilead owns the patent to the drug remdesivir, which may possibly lessen the severity of COVID-19 for patients. Gilead issued licenses to produce remdesivir to manufacturers in India and Pakistan, under the condition that they export only to specific countries. This condition thus excluded several developing nations, especially in South America. Since manufacturing a generic version of this drug would violate the TRIPS Agreement, nations left off the list simply do not have access to remdesivir.
Moderna has agreed not to enforce its patents on vaccines and related COVID-19 technology during the pandemic. However, Doctors Without Borders argues that without access to more information involving research and manufacturing processes, this does little to help the Global South develop and produce its own vaccines.
In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed to the TRIPS Council that certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement be waived during the pandemic so that copyright and patents will not apply to COVID-19 treatments and technologies. This “would facilitate deep technology transfer for effective COVID-19-related vaccines, therapeutics or diagnostic tests.” Support for the waiver comes from developing nations in Africa, Asia and Central America. Wealthier nations, including the U.S. and Australia, are the primary dissenters.
Call for Open Technology
In response to the need for equitable access to technology, the World Health Organization launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) in May 2020. The program is in partnership with the Costa Rican Government and is endorsed by 40 nations. Primary to the program is a solidarity call to action among governments and other research and development funders “to voluntarily share knowledge, intellectual property and data necessary for COVID-19.” This “would permit effective technology transfer and early access to key technologies for the detection, prevention, treatment and response of COVID-19.” It would encourage:
- Public disclosure of gene sequencing research
- Timely disclosure and publication of all clinical trial results
- Including clauses in contracts with pharmaceutical companies that ensure equitable distribution and publication of trial data
- Non-exclusive licensing for COVID-19 technologies
- “Open innovation models and technology transfer that increases local manufacturing and supply capacity”
The C-TAP therefore intends to build a pool of available patents that mirrors the success of the Medicines Patent Pool, which uses open technology to prevent and treat HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C in underdeveloped nations.
The Power of Collaboration
The pandemic will not end until the world’s most impoverished have access to the technology that can end infections and deaths in their own nations. Some governments and developers are embracing collaborative research and technology but many more must work together to ensure the health and safety of the global population.
– Elise Brehob