Waiving Vaccine Patents Won’t Be a Panacea

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With patients in India dying in the streets and crematoriums melting down from overuse, pressure is building on the U.S. and other rich nations to waive patents so that anyone, anywhere can produce Covid-19 vaccines. There’s no question that boosting global manufacturing and distribution of vaccines should be an overriding priority, but the argument over intellectual property is missing a crucial point. IP waivers, by themselves, won’t get the job done.

The issue will be front and center at World Trade Organization meetings this week. India, South Africa and more than 50 other countries are demanding a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics. They say that rich countries have cornered the market on vaccine supplies, inoculating their populations 25 times faster than poor countries and refusing to share stockpiles until their own needs have been met. Meanwhile India, which has fully vaccinated barely 2% of its population, is setting world records as new cases have reached 400,000 per day.

Closing this gap is a moral imperative. It’s also in everyone’s interests. The coronavirus variant contributing to India’s surge has already spread to the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere. Other mutations will emerge if the pandemic isn’t brought under control.

The trouble is, merely allowing other drugmakers to produce Covid-19 vaccines doesn’t mean they could. Even if they were able to reverse engineer the vaccines — unlikely, especially for the newer mRNA technology — they’d still lack the personnel, specialized technology, critical inputs and manufacturing techniques to produce at scale. The real challenge is to induce and enable vaccine makers such as Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc., Johnson & Johnson and others to expand their own output or partner with others, licensing their technology and sharing the full range of supporting know-how.

Neither approach is easy. Whether as producers or as partners with others, the main developers are already stretched thin, and rightly concerned about maintaining quality control. Key inputs are in limited supply. And it will take months, at best, to get new facilities up and running. Manufacturers say they’ll make 12 billion doses this year. They might wonder if demand will justify additional investment.

The main thing is that IP isn’t the only bottleneck, or even the central one. The U.S. and its allies need to act as the companies’ partners to eliminate all the other obstacles to increased production and distribution — devising, in effect, a global equivalent to Operation Warp Speed.

Generous financial support for the main developers to expand their own production and distribution in low-income countries should be the first line of attack. But the fastest way to scale up will often be by repurposing other firms’ existing factories, under license and under the main developers’ supervision. Building entirely new facilities would take longer.

Rich-country governments ought to hasten such arrangements not just with financial support but also by relieving the many other choke points involved. They should help find and do due diligence on potential manufacturing partners in the developing world; provide funding to retool and staff facilities, as the U.S. and Japan have already agreed to do in India; invest in factories to produce key inputs and ensure these flow freely to where they’re most needed; help to negotiate contracts, ensuring sufficient demand for manufacturers and alleviating liability concerns; work on accelerating regulatory approvals; and support enlarging the distribution capacity of low-income countries, many of which are struggling to get shots into arms even when they have the vaccines.

One step can be taken immediately. The Biden administration’s decision to send critical vaccine-making supplies to India, and its promise to share millions of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca Plc., are both welcome. Now, it should swiftly develop a plan to share some of the more than 300 million extra doses it’ll have this year, as should other rich countries that have ordered more vaccines than they need.

The full extent of necessary support will take time, commitment and money to deliver. If the effort succeeds, countless lives will be saved. And it’s worth remembering that if it yields a stronger global system of vaccine manufacturing and distribution, the program will pay dividends not just this time but in the next pandemic as well.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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