The urgent battle for Covid-19 vaccine patent waivers

Natalia Antelava


There is a new coronavirus lie in town: “we can end the pandemic without changing the way vaccines are manufactured,” it goes, and it is whispered the loudest out of Brussels.

Just 5.7% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated. Only another 5% have had a single dose. 

If you are part of the new pandemic elite, congratulations — but you should hold off celebrating. If the end of your Covid-19 crisis feels near, it isn’t. The virus is thriving and mutating among the unvaccinated 94.3% of the world’s population, most of whom live in the global south. 

While the conversation around vaccine inequality in the media has focused heavily on distribution, an increasing number of authoritative voices argue that manufacturing is a bigger issue, and that the only path out of the pandemic lies through a major increase in vaccine production. 

To achieve the production increase the world needs, pharmaceutical companies need to temporarily waive intellectual property rights and allow manufacturers everywhere to make copies of their vaccines without fear of being sued by corporations like Pfizer and AstraZeneca. 

Sounds like a no brainer? Well, It isn’t.  

Lessons from South Africa 

South Africa’s experience of HIV/AIDS is, literally, a case study in patent law and policy. In the 1990s, during the height of the crisis, the South African government, frustrated that drugs were too expensive for its citizens, passed a law giving the state the right to import cheap, generic versions without getting permission from the pharmaceutical companies that held the intellectual property rights to them. It set an important precedent for overriding patents on vital medications.

“We knew what we had to do,” says Leslie London, professor of public health at Cape Town University, who is currently coordinating equitable access to health technology for the advocacy organization People’s Health Movement South Africa

In October 2020, South Africa teamed up with India and, together, the two countries came up with a detailed proposal on how the world could go about waiving medical patents, in order to allow local production of Covid-19 vaccines. There were no takers.

“By now we could have had local manufacturing,” says London. Instead, South Africa is going into a third wave, amid severe vaccine shortages. And the waves, he warns, won’t stop until the global north starts being more serious about getting the south vaccinated.  If they don’t, he says “it will create more variants and come back to bite them.”

More and more countries are beginning to accept this as a fact.  

This week, Brazil changed its mind and agreed to the patent waiver proposal. The United States — the world’s most staunch protector of intellectual property — also signed up a month ago, when President Joe Biden’s administration acted on his campaign promise and backed the proposal

Even Bill Gates, who came under a lot of criticism for blocking vaccine patent waivers recently, has reversed course. His foundation now supports the temporary lifting of coronavirus vaccine patents. 

The consensus among all of these powerful groups and nations is clear: the pandemic will not end until the world starts producing more vaccines. 

So what’s stopping them?

The European Union. 

Along with the U.K., Norway, Switzerland and a dwindling number of other countries, the EU Commission, led by Germany, is making sure that the topic of patent waivers stays off the table. 

Two weeks ago, we reported on a key meeting in Rome that offered an opportunity to end the deadlock. It didn’t. 

“The pandemic is costing millions of lives and trillions of dollars. It is crazy that ending it ASAP is not a number one priority. And, yet, the EU’s policy has been to obstruct any discussion about patent waivers,” says Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch, one of the dozens of organizations that are now part of the growing People’s Vaccine movement. 

Why is the EU so against patent waivers? 

The EU has listed several reasons for its opposition, including:

  • “There are not enough manufacturing facilities in the world anyway, so patent waivers won’t help”

Not true, according to the non-profit Knowledge Ecology International, which has put together an impressive database of global vaccine manufacturing capacity. Prof. London also says that, while local production is an issue in many places, it’s not insurmountable. “Political will is what we need,” he explains.

  • “Waivers won’t instantly expand production”

True, but, as Stroehlein puts it, “Wasting time only benefits the virus”. Think of the hundreds of thousands of people who could have been saved if the world leaders hadn’t wasted the seven months that have passed since the initial waiver proposal. 

  • “We already have Covax” 

Technically true, but misleading. The World Health Organization-affiliated program for the developing world is all about distribution. Covax is currently not working, precisely because there aren’t enough vaccines around. 

  • “Waiving intellectual property will hurt innovation”

Very possibly true, because, as we wrote here, pharmaceutical companies spend years making high-risk investments in painstaking, decades-long research. Giving away intellectual property could deincentivize future investment. 

However, patent waiver advocates say that, with lives and economies at risk, this argument doesn’t stand up — and much of the research that gave us Covid-19 vaccines has been publicly funded anyway. 

Stroehlein, whose prolific Twitter feed I highly recommend to anyone wanting to dig in further, argues that the EU is simply regurgitating the pharmaceutical industry’s arguments.  

The EU has both a powerful pharmaceutical lobby and weak lobby transparency rules. Public scrutiny is difficult but, according to the research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory, pharmaceutical companies spend around 36 million euros per year on lobbying Brussels, and at least one has increased its outlay by around 20% during the pandemic year. 

What’s Next? 

The EU is coming under increasing pressure, from outside and within. 

Individual cabinet ministers in European countries, including Italy, Portugal, Poland and Ireland have now spoken in favor of waivers.  

President Emmanuel Macron of France has been an interesting case, flip flopping on his position, first echoing Germany’s concerns about patent waivers, then saying that he was “absolutely in favor” of them.

Next week could bring a breakthrough. On June 7, the European Parliament will vote on its position. 

If the vote goes in favor of patent waivers, it will be hard for the European Commission — the union’s unelected body — to continue blocking negotiations. 

June is a critical month. The World Trade Organization is meeting in Geneva on June 9-10 to discuss the issue, and it is certain to come up a couple of days later, when G7 leaders meet in London. 

Negotiations could still take months, and waiving patents is certainly not a panacea. But, at the moment, it is the best chance of ending the pandemic. 

“Protecting your pharmaceutical industry is very short sighted,”  says Prof. London. 

He adds that Europe’s myopic approach is driven by fear. Agreeing to even a narrow exception to trade rules sets a precedent and exposes “a big lie that there is ever any need for intellectual property rights at a time when thousands of people are dying.” 

Coda’s researcher Masho Lomashvili contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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