A True Covid ‘People's Vaccine' Gets a Little Closer

The rich world has had a change of heart about enforcing drugmakers’ Covid-19 vaccine patents. It’s a belated but powerful step intended to boost immunization campaigns in developing countries as new virus hotspots flare up. Despite resistance from the pharmaceutical industry, public opinion had sided with voices like the head of the World Health Organization, who put it as a question: “If not now, when?”

As big as it is, though, it’s only a start. Even assuming World Trade Organization patent obligations are waived with the support of the U.S. and Europe — which isn’t a sure thing yet, especially after Germany pushed back on the idea — it’s unlikely to be enough on its own to fulfil the dream of a “People’s Vaccine” to break out of this pandemic. Pushing the pharmaceutical industry to share manufacturing know-how is the real goal and that will take yet more concerted political willpower.

Immunization campaigns are glaringly unequal right now. The wealthiest 27 places in the world account for 10.5% of the population, but 35.6% of vaccinations, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The U.S. and European Union scrambled early to hoard enough doses to inoculate their citizens several times over. They’ll have covered most of their adults this year.

While worthy initiatives exist to get doses to the developing world, they’re not nearly enough on their own: Covax’s target this year is to cover about 20% of its member countries’ populations.

The question is whether waiving an obligation to follow WTO rules on patents can rebalance this. Unlike in the AIDS crisis, when South Africa fought what activists called “drug profiteering” for affordable access to life-saving drugs, today’s biggest challenge is manufacturing enough vaccine doses for billions of people.

A lot of obstacles have slowed things down, not all patent related: Raw materials supplies, the complexity of new technologies like messenger-RNA vaccines and logistical issues in scaling up production. The first big lawsuit of this pandemic — the EU’s legal action against AstraZeneca Plc — wasn’t about intellectual property but the delivery of promised doses.

Without deeper sharing of expertise in how to make vaccines like the ones devised by Pfizer Inc. or Moderna Inc., waiving patent obligations is unlikely to be a game-changer, according to Stanford Law School’s Lisa Ouellette. Having access to the “recipe” certainly helps, but understanding how to put it together and produce it at scale is something else. This explains why, months after Moderna’s own voluntary pledge not to enforce patent rights on its vaccine, there’s been no flourishing of factories pumping out “generic” messenger-RNA vaccines.

The hope is that the more strident tone on patents from U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is really about holding the industry’s feet to the fire by pushing them to strike more partnerships and share their secrets around the world. An international industry association says it has signed 200 technology transfer agreements to expand Covid vaccine production; judging by the current state of affairs, though, it looks like even more are needed.

Given the billions in public money plowed into researching, developing and manufacturing vaccines, governments have leverage. As Ken Shadlen, a professor at the London School of Economics, has suggested, governments can make clear that if vaccine producers don’t do the right thing now, they risk punishment later, in more normal times, on issues like affordable drug pricing.

Waiving the WTO rules, known as TRIPS, is certainly a better look than hoarding doses, curbing exports and, in the EU’s case, suing AstraZeneca. For now, though, it’s a symbolic victory. If it’s not followed up by more muscular action, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will be asking the same question in a year’s time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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