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Who owns vaccines?

Covid vaccine nationalism is showing us that our intellectual property system is broken


This is an article from the third issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here

Over recent months, talk of vaccine nationalism’ — where wealthy governments work to secure deals for vaccination supplies while many poorer countries are effectively denied equitable access — has grown. Indeed, while the speed at which the vaccines themselves have been developed is incredible, their uneven global distribution highlights the fundamentally flawed way medicines are owned and distributed.

As we celebrated the vaccines being administered in the UK back in January, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), warned that the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” By mid-January, while over 39m doses of vaccines had been dispensed in at least 49 higher-income countries, only 25 doses had been administered in one lowest-income country. In the words of Dr Tedros: Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25.” By April, while one in four people in wealthy countries had been vaccinated, only one in 500 people in low-income countries had received jabs.

How has this happened? Why are so many countries unable to access adequate supplies of the Covid-19 vaccines? To get to the heart of one important aspect of this, we have to delve into the ownership of the vaccines themselves. Who gets to own vaccines is governed by intellectual property rights (IP), a group of rights and protections around creations of the mind.

IP influences how ideas and inventions are used, and covers everything from patents and copyrights to trademarks. In the case of vaccines, even though their development is often part-funded by public research and development (R&D) money, the rights to the know-how’ are often exclusively owned by pharmaceutical companies. The pandemic has shown how inadequate this current system is.

IP was designed to safeguard the ownership of knowledge and creativity, in order to encourage innovation. But today’s approach has often fuelled the power and wealth of multinational corporations — and pharmaceutical giants are no exception. Protecting the IP of Covid vaccines will only prolong the global pandemic by undermining the collective capacity to rapidly administer vaccines for all.

There were attempts to tackle this through creating a global patent pool, where pharmaceutical companies would give up the exclusive rights to their vaccine patents so that other countries could afford to buy or create versions of the vaccines. This would allow for a more rapid rollout from all governments and could help boost production capacity. Last year, for example, the WHO introduced an initiative to share intellectual property and scientific data to help fight the pandemic: the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. Among the countries which supported it were Argentina, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Panama. Notably absent were the influential voices of countries like the UK, US, France and Germany. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson chimed in to condemn the concept of intellectual IP pools.

IP is a hallmark of today’s global trade system, upheld through TRIPS’, an international legal framework that establishes minimum requirements for intellectual property rules. This often enables a patent-holding pharmaceutical company to oversee the production and licensing of drugs for decades. India and South Africa initially proposed an IP waiver for Covid vaccines at the World Trade Organisation in October, and the idea has since gained traction from other countries. In May, the Biden administration backed a narrow waiver for intellectual property related to Covid-19 vaccines. And while there is a growing appetite within the EU for a temporary IP waiver, members of the European Parliament are yet to reach a consensus. While global activists continue to make advances, there is a long way to go before any robust waiver is adopted.

With a failure to quickly back the sharing of IP for vaccines sofar, many low- and middle-income countries have been left without adequate access to a vital tool to combat the pandemic. There have been some marked developments, most notably an initiative known as Covax, of which the UK is a member. Covax aims to deliver 2bn doses of vaccines around the world by the end of 2021. But this alone is not enough to make the global vaccine rollout rapid and equitable. As the WHO says: Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue.”

At a time when we badly needed cooperation and transparency, governments channelled vast sums of public money into a private, monopoly-based system. Oxfam warned in December that nine out of 10 people in poor countries are set to miss out on Covid-19 vaccines in 2021. Campaign organisation Global Just Now called for all pharmaceutical corporations and research institutions working on a vaccine to share the science, technological know-how, and intellectual property behind their vaccine so enough safe and effective doses can be produced.”

Covid-19 has highlighted the stark imbalances designed into our current approach to IP. And beyond the immediate need to secure safe and effective vaccines for all, we must re-evaluate our broader approach to IP. This is a system that can disproportionately benefit corporations, and often neither fairly distributes products and services nor maximises innovation. We need to rebalance power, moving away from a system of exclusive ownership, and towards one where our approach to vital IP is grounded in principles of equal access and public ownership.

Intellectual property is an important part of any economic system, but if we want incredible developments like new vaccines to protect all of us around the world, we need to transform our approach to IP to ensure that it meets our needs. This is a global crisis, and we need a global response. Sharing the IP for Covid vaccines would help to safeguard fairer, global access to vaccines and accelerate our collective ability to tackle the pandemic.

Miriam Brett is director of research and advocacy at Common Wealth, a think tank working on ownership strategies for a democratic and sustainable economy.

Image: iStock

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