What good are effective COVID-19 vaccines if limited supplies and patents prevent people around the world from getting the shots before new viral strains reignite the pandemic?
Right now, lives depend on distributing the vaccines to as many of the world’s 7.5 billion people as possible, including those living in nations that can’t afford to subsidize the vaccines for their populations. That’s critical for them, but also for the United States: If the disease is able to spread unchecked overseas, it’s more likely that new vaccine-resistant variants will emerge and inevitably make their way back here, endangering all of our progress over the last year.
The Western biotech companies that invented the vaccines, and did so in record time, certainly deserve to be paid. But President Biden must also prod them to share their discoveries without delay, using the powerful regulatory tools at his disposal.
While global distribution efforts are already underway, they’re simply not enough to vaccinate the billions of people living in the Global South in a reasonable period of time. COVAX, for example, is an ambitious global health program that seeks to give poor countries free access to the most effective vaccines. And although the Biden administration took a step in the right direction and recently pledged to boost COVAX’s funding by $4 billion, its rollout is still moving at a slow pace. Only a handful of countries have begun rolling out vaccination campaigns through the program — and they only just got started last week.
While there are several roadblocks to efficient global distribution, the main issue right now is supply. And a charitable program like COVAX, which buys the vaccine on behalf of middle- and low-income countries, does not do much to bolster vaccine production. “Charity itself is really not scalable,” said Dr. Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer at Partners In Health. “We really think that the technology and the know-how need to be transferred and scaled immediately to the giant factories that can produce the vaccine.” And time, she noted, is of the essence. “This has to happen now. Not six months from now, not a year from now.”
That means that companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson must share their patents and knowledge with manufacturers around the world. They could do this voluntarily, which some have shown openness to, but governments should make it compulsory. Under the World Trade Organization’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, member states are allowed to grant compulsory licenses for pharmaceutical treatments, which means that they can use a patent without getting the patent holder’s consent. While that may reduce the massive profits earned by the companies that invented vaccines, it’s exactly what countries should be doing in a global emergency like a deadly pandemic.
But curtailing patents is not enough, because the patents, Mukherjee said, are just the ingredients; factories need the recipe — or the know-how. In order to successfully scale production globally, the Biden administration should negotiate deals with companies to transfer their knowledge and technology to other manufacturers. This could come in the form of royalties on vaccines sold in developing countries. While that might not yield as much in profits, these companies have already made billions of dollars in the pandemic.
Ultimately, if vaccine producers are unwilling to open up their technology and know-how to other manufacturers, the federal government could invoke Section 1498 of Title 28 of the US Code, which grants the US government compulsory licensing powers. It may never have to come to that, though, since just the threat of invoking that law will likely get companies to compromise.
This is not to say that the United States should make a habit of unlocking patents, which do serve the important purpose of giving companies the financial incentive to invent products for the public good. But there have always been limits to the length and scope of patents, and it’s reasonable in a global pandemic to tear down any obstacles that needlessly delay global vaccination. In this case, too, companies received massive government support to develop the vaccines — over $10 billion, through Operation Warp Speed. It’s a unique circumstance that supports a unique approach to those vaccines’ patents.
The most critical need when it comes to vaccine distribution right now is significantly bolstering supply. Doing so would benefit both the United States and the rest of the world. And while a few companies stand to earn less than they would otherwise by opening up their patents to other manufacturers — though, to be sure, they will still profit billions of dollars — the social and economic costs of a slow vaccine rollout are too high to do anything less.