Over the last couple months, you may have heard talk about waiving intellectual property protections of Covid-19 vaccines, in order to allow the manufacturing of these vaccines in other countries.
This is a complex issue, so let’s break it down.
What is a TRIPS waiver and what would it do?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) houses a Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This council oversees the TRIPS Agreement, which includes standards for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights between all WTO member nations.
At an April meeting, WTO members agreed to consider a proposal that would create a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations in light of Covid-19 continuing to wreak havoc on much of the world.
The proposal was initially submitted by South Africa and India. Since the first submission, 60 WTO members have signed on to co-sponsor the proposal, including Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Maldives, Fiji, Namibia, the African Group, and the Least Developed Countries Group.
The countries are calling for a waiver to change four sections of the TRIPS Agreement: Section 1 on copyright and related rights, Section 4 on industrial designs, Section 5 on patents, and Section 7 on the protection of undisclosed information.
This waiver is meant to help countries avoid barriers that complicate access to Covid-19 vaccines.
Countries sponsoring the waiver want to engage in discussions with other member countries on what changes need to be made from the original TRIPS Agreement to allow for easy access to the vaccines.
President Biden said his administration, including Trade Representative Katherine Tai, would be open to discussions about the waiver.
Trade Rep. Tai released a statement on May 5 announcing the administration’s decision.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines,” Tai said in the statement. “We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
Delegations opposed to the waiver aren’t sure if it’s necessary on an international level. Some even argue that a waiver would be counterproductive to current efforts to send vaccines between countries.
Those in the biotech industry take it one step further. Not only could the waiver be counterproductive, but may not address the root of the problem.
What does the biotechnology community have to say?
Joan Koerber-Walker, the president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association (AZBio), the nonprofit organization committed to help bioscience organizations succeed in the state, has concerns about waiving intellectual property protections.
“Once you give away that technology, you can’t get it back,” Koerber-Walker said in an interview with AZ Tech Beat. “When we look at it from that perspective, it starts to set a very, very dangerous precedent.”
Koerber-Walker continued that waiving intellectual property protections in this circumstance would set the precedent that could waive protections for any technology in the future.
“Do we want to set a precedent where an international organization with the agreement of the United States government provides authority to take away intellectual property rights?” Koerber-Walker said. “That’s actually pretty scary when you start thinking that way.”
Koerber-Walker continued that giving the intellectual property to other countries is not going to solve the problem of not enough vaccines to go around. She views the shortage of vaccines as a problem with the supply chain, not a lack of cooperation between countries in sending vaccines.
“Giving the intellectual property to third parties is not going to address the supply chain issues. It’s going to complicate the supply chain issues, because now you have more people competing for a limited supply chain,” Koerber-Walker said.
Koerber-Walker also mentioned the complexity of these Covid-19 vaccines. It wouldn’t be easy for other — mainly smaller, less economically developed — countries to manufacture vaccines.
The national Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) agreed. In a statement from May 5, Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of BIO, said the organization is “disappointed” in the administration’s support of the waiver.
“Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards, and sizable workforce needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine,” McMurry-Heath’s statement read. “Handing them the blueprint to construct a kitchen that — in optimal conditions — can take a year to build will not help us stop the emergence of dangerous new COVID variants.”
“The better alternative would have been to follow through on the President’s pledge just last week to make the United States the world’s ‘arsenal of vaccines’,” the statement continued.
In May, BIO wrote a list of policy solutions that would establish the Covid Global Strategy for Harnessing Access Reaching Everyone (SHARE) Program.
“The Global SHARE Program would ensure sufficient global supply of vaccines, ensure safe and expeditious global access to vaccines and therapeutics, and bolster ongoing efforts to strengthen and support healthcare systems in low-and middle-income countries in addressing COVID,” the BIO statement said. “It would accomplish these goals without compromising protections for intellectual property or further stretching limited global vaccine expertise to the breaking point.”
Still, the science community supports vaccinations for everyone and wants to see the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps more than any other community.
“The number one thing is, this is a global pandemic. It is a global problem. The number one goal is to save lives,” Koerber-Walker said. “We want to come up with the best way to get the most vaccines, to the people that want it and need them, in the fastest way possible.”