The experience of the HIV epidemic in Africa should be borne in mind when trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Intellectual property rights have once again become at the center of international politics with the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing vaccinenationalism.
Patents and other exclusive rights encourage research and vaccine development, but in another horizontal balance, global solidarity and the need to vaccinate all people weigh.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many civil society actors and policy makers have called for the release of patents on medicines and vaccines. However, the mere release of patents will not increase vaccine production or solve the challenges of vaccine supply chains.
Africa at the turn of the millennium, the HIV epidemic led to the revision of the WTO TRIPS Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights.
WTO members may provide in their legislation for a compulsory licensing procedure, under which pharmaceutical companies must, in specific circumstances, allow others to produce medicines developed by companies. The revision of the TRIPS agreement will allow these restricted medicines to be exported to countries that do not have their own pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity. A mechanism to increase the availability of vaccines in the international health crisis therefore already exists.
It took almost 18 years to implement the contractual solution and changes reached on HIV drugs, and not all countries have yet accepted the possibility of relaxing patents in health crises. Even after the revision of the agreement, there have been problems with the availability of HIV drugs.
Similar problems may slow the widespread use of coronavirus vaccines.
Even if vaccine manufacturing capacity exists in India, for example, different vaccines require different skills and different factory equipment. It usually takes years to start vaccine production from scratch.
Currently, only a few production sites in the world have experience in manufacturing mrna vaccines. It would also take 3 to 6 months to start manufacturing the vaccines now needed in these facilities.
Vaccines manufacturing involves, in addition to patents, many other proprietary details, know-how and trade secrets that pharmaceutical companies cannot disclose.
Many of the raw materials used to make vaccines are running out. At the upstream end of the production chain, capacity needs to be increased to enable more and faster production of vaccines.
The last bottleneck is logistics. Even if the production of vaccines were to start at new production sites and with increased capacity, new production batches risk being spoiled or stuck in the absence of transport capacity. Licensing arrangements, as well as manufacturing start-up and logistics problems, can take so much time that the temporal benefit sought by patent release is lost.
It is also possible that more drugs for the treatment of coronavirus disease will soon be needed than vaccines, and patents for these drugs should also be discussed.
Patents liberalization would send a clear political message that world leaders are taking international health equality seriously.
On the other hand, the dramatic interference with intellectual property rights may set a precedent for addressing the constitutional right to private property in several countries.
Intellectual property rights alone do not prevent the large-scale production of vaccines, nor does the mere release of patents save the world from a pandemic. However, the pandemic has raised intellectual property issues. Indeed, the liberalization of patents in the current context may send a message that a more balanced approach to intellectual property rights is needed.
Nari Lee and Gyöngyi Kovács
Nari Lee is Professor of Intellectual Property Law and Gyöngyi Kovács is Professor of Humanitarian Logistics at the Swedish School of Economics in Hanken.
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