Despite the rapid dissemination of vaccines across the US and other developed nations with approximately half of the population already being vaccinated, the developing world and other countries that are more geographically distant are far behind in their vaccination rates. The WHO proposed a waiver of IP rights for COVID-19-related pharmaceuticals and the response has been controversial, with surprising opinions raised from a variety of parties. According to health officials, the vaccine is a major component in ridding the world of COVID-19, but would freeing up the manufacture of the vaccines actually be effective, or simply lead to a meaningless loss of income for the companies that invested so much in development?
RIETI Research Associate Banri ITO looks at this challenging question.
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Will a Waiver of Intellectual Property Rights on Vaccines Lead to Increased Supply?
The United States has announced its policy of supporting a proposed temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19-related pharmaceuticals that was discussed at a meeting of the General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 5-6, marking a policy reversal from its previous opposition to the waiver. It is said that behind this change of course is a growing tide of international criticism, mainly among developing countries, that the monopoly on vaccines by developed countries is impeding both equitable supply and the U.S. government's attempt to counter the "vaccine diplomacy" being promoted by China and Russia. Will the policy reversal by the United States actually lead to an improvement in vaccine supply?
Regarding waivers of vaccine patents, there have been some voluntary initiatives. On October 8, soon after South Africa and India proposed a waiver of the TRIPS agreement on October 2, 2020, Moderna, a U.S. pharmaceutical company, expressed its intention not to exercise its patent rights on its COVID-19 vaccine. Although Moderna has reached an agreement with South Korean pharmaceutical company Samsung Biologics on consignment production of the vaccine on May 22, 2021, however, so far, there have been very few confirmed cases of efforts to reproduce Moderna's vaccine or of licenses being granted to other companies.