The Intellectual Property on Covid-19 Should Be Shared as Rapidly and Widely as Possible
byJeffrey D. Sachs
Published on Thursday, April 29, 2021 by Project Syndicate
Intellectual Property must serve the global good, rather than humanity serving the interests of a few private companies. And in the case of Covid-19, the global good is not in doubt: rapid worldwide immunization, in order to save lives, prevent the emergence of new variants, and end the pandemic.
The governments of South Africa, India, and dozens of other developing countries are calling for the rights on intellectual property (IP), including vaccine patents, to be waived to accelerate the worldwide production of supplies to fight COVID-19. They are absolutely correct. IP for fighting COVID-19 should be waived, and indeed actively shared among scientists, companies, and nations.
An IP waiver or its equivalent has become a practical urgent need as well as a moral imperative. The pharmaceutical industry and the governments of several vaccine-producing countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Commission, have been resisting the IP waiver, while 150 public leaders and experts have sent an open letter to US President Joe Biden in support of it. There is no longer any question about who is right. Given the surge of COVID-19 in several regions, most recently in India, the continuing emergence of new and deadly variants of the virus, and the inability of the current vaccine producers to keep pace with global needs, an IP waiver or its equivalent has become a practical urgent need as well as a moral imperative.
As a general principle, IP should not stand in the way of scaling up production to fight COVID-19 or any other public health emergency. We need more countries to be producing vaccines, test kits, and other needed commodities. IP-related delays could mean millions more COVID-19 deaths and more viral mutations that sweep across the entire world population, possibly infecting people who have already been vaccinated.
And yet we face a situation in which the world’s urgent needs are pitted against the narrow corporate interests of a few US and European pharmaceutical companies. The companies are even trying to turn their opposition to an IP waiver into a geopolitical issue, arguing that China and Russia must be prevented from gaining the knowhow to produce mRNA vaccines. This argument is immoral, indeed potentially homicidal. If opposition to IP waivers slows the production of effective vaccines in China and Russia, it would directly endanger Americans, Europeans, and everyone else.
The relevant international law, known as the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement, already recognizes the right and occasional need of governments to override IP in the case of public health emergencies by invoking a compulsory license. A compulsory license gives local companies the right to use patent-protected IP. The right to compulsory licensing of IP to protect public health was already agreed [to] in 2001 as part of TRIPS in the case of production for domestic use. In 2005, it was extended to cover production for exports to countries that lack their own production capacity.
It is likely that Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa could develop the capacity for increasing the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Yet these countries are reluctant to invoke compulsory licenses for fear of retaliation by the US Government or other governments where patent-holders are based. The proposed general waiver of IP would overcome the fear of each country in invoking a compulsory license, and would solve other heavy bureaucratic obstacles in using compulsory licenses. A waiver would also be helpful for non-vaccine technologies (solvents and reagents, vaccine vials, test kits, and so forth).