Missing Link: Covid-19 vaccine patents save the world – or they don’t

The vaccine supplier Johnson & Johnson is unlikely to be able to meet its delivery commitments in the USA. The British vaccination campaign threatens to stumble in the face of a new Indian export ban. And Europe’s governments are reacting with stricter export controls in order to keep the scarce corona vaccines in the confederation. Is that enough or, in view of this development, does the sacred cow “intellectual property” have to be slaughtered in order to be able to expand vaccine production worldwide and to ensure fair distribution?

Pardis Sabeti, a highly decorated bioinformatician at Harvard University and discoverer of the first animal-to-human transmission of Ebola, is very firm on this point: “I think our current system gives too much power to the owners of intellectual property rights. You follow a ‘winner takes it all ‘logic “, writes Sabeti at the request of heise online.

It is very difficult to understand that society is being deprived of the opportunity to quickly obtain broad access to a safe vaccine just because the intellectual property of individuals should not be touched, “especially after so much public money the rapid development “made vaccines possible,” writes Sabeti. She said, “We need to rethink intellectual property rights when it comes to viruses, especially in emergency situations like the one we are experiencing right now.” In order to achieve fair access to the vaccine, research and politics still have to improve.

The current uneven distribution of vaccines has fueled the debate in the World Trade Organization (WHO) over a temporary suspension of the protection of patents, designs and trade secrets. Since last year, in addition to South Africa, almost 60 other countries have been fighting over the exemption for all Covid-19-essential intellectual property claims (IP). The suspension should – so the proposal – allow the production of vaccines in as many suitable production facilities as possible worldwide. But Europe, the USA and a small group of other countries are blocking official negotiations in Geneva on a possible text, although the number of more or less prominent supporters of the suspension is growing. Last week 115 members of the European Parliament called on the EU to end its resistance.

support receives the initiative of South Africa from former Democratic US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. US President Joe Biden gave in to pressure to do more for vaccine justice by addressing the issue at his first meeting with the so-called Quad Group. The anti-China alliance consisting of the USA, Japan, India and Australia therefore wants the Production of Johnson & Johnson and possibly also Novavax vaccine for the Pacific region through an Indian manufacturer.

Europe’s heads of government and the EU Commission want to make EU vaccine exports dependent on the reciprocity and transparency of the respective importer. But they do not want to know anything about a patent suspension at international level.

The national and international protection of intellectual property rights and the public promotion of contractually secured purchase guarantees have “proven to be an important motor for the production of vaccines to combat the pandemic and to enable access to vaccines worldwide,” writes the federal government in response to a request from the Left Parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

The protection of exclusive rights offers “an essential incentive for research and development of vaccines” and at the same time is “an important legal requirement for contractual cooperation and license agreements” with other companies and suppliers. You see yourself confirmed by “234 production agreements for Covid-19 vaccines” worldwide, according to the answer that heise online is available. The voluntary licensing works accordingly.

What is missing: In the fast-paced world of technology, there is often the time to rearrange the many news and backgrounds. At the weekend we want to take it, follow the side paths away from the current, try different perspectives and make nuances audible.

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Reto Hilty, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition in Munich, is also opposed to the suspension of patents through the World Trade Organization (WTO). He believes that putting the “ax to the patent system” in the pandemic is downright dangerous: it is “playing with fire”, he says. Hilty is one of those for whom patent protection is essential to protect investments, particularly in the field of medical innovations.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the last person to defend the pharmaceutical industry. But certain companies have invested huge sums of money and they have to amortize those expenses somehow,” said Hilty. It goes without saying that the public sector has also invested large sums in vaccine development. However, the inventions on which the new mRNA vaccines are based had arisen and had been patented beforehand, for example with regard to cancer therapies. “It’s a little more complicated than it might seem at first glance,” the scientist points out.

Hilty admits that the actual bill and the already made and expected profits of the companies are not so clearly understandable. “I actually see a fundamental problem here. There is too little transparency.” In addition, patent protection is necessary for innovations in the health sector, but often not sufficient for new drugs to be developed. “Examples are rare diseases or diseases of poverty. You can grant as many patents as you want,” he says. Because: “The incentive does not come from patent protection, but from an expected profit”.

This can also be seen in the field of antibiotics. More and more resistances emerged, which had to be fought and which required new preparations. However, this market is hardly profitable because states are trying to keep the prices for such mass medicines low. “In such situations there is a risk of market failure. But that cannot be blamed on patent law,” says Hilty.

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