by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 6
May 2021
Reaction
14:03

Waiving the vaccine IP is a huge blunder

This decision won’t do much good and could actually be harmful
by Tom Chivers

The USA has said that pharma companies should be required to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. That is: any firm that wanted to produce, say, the Pfizer vaccine would now be able to do so. The idea is that it would free up more manufacturers and so increase vaccine supply.

Obviously everyone wants that; there really is a terrible disparity between the rich world and the developing one. But I think that 1) it probably won’t do much good, if any, 2) it reduces the incentives for pharma companies to behave well in the next pandemic, and 3) it’s both miserly and attention-seeking on the part of national governments.

Let’s take them in order. First, here’s why it probably won’t do much good.

The thing that is slowing down vaccine production is not that there are hundreds of manufacturers champing at the bit to get started, but who are prevented from doing so by IP laws. Certainly with the mRNA vaccines, the problem is a shortage of materials and a shortage of expertise.

The Oxford vaccine researcher Sandy Douglas points out that Moderna said back in October that they wouldn’t enforce patents, but no one else is making the Moderna vaccine yet. Derek Lowe, a drug discovery chemist, agrees: this isn’t the bottleneck. The immunologist Andrew Croxford describes an IP waiver as the “thoughts and prayers” of vaccine supply. A development economist I spoke to pointed out that that opening up IP could even make things worse — if there’s a shortage of raw materials and suddenly there are more producers competing for them.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other cases where IP is a problem, and where it’s enforced in weird ways! There are lots of weird cases where drugs that should be generic and cheap are expensive and protected, especially in the US. But in the case of Covid vaccines, it’s not the problem at hand.

Second, it reduces incentives for pharma companies to do the right thing next time. As I wrote a few months ago, there’s a real tension between making drugs cheaply available and incentivising pharma companies to develop new ones. The market, on its own, fails in many situations to relieve that tension.

There are clever ways around it which I discuss in the piece. But when the next pandemic comes around, we would like the pharmaceutical industry to do what it did this time — drop everything and work like hell to make vaccines. Maybe waiving IP rights will have no impact on their willingness to do that next time, but if there’s even a small chance that it will, it seems a bad bet. The pandemic is costing trillions of dollars; a few billion in profits to pharma companies is completely irrelevant.

Third, why are we being so cheap? As I just said: the pandemic is costing trillions of dollars. The Nobel-prize-winning economist Michael Kremer estimates that shortening its span by one month would save $500 billion. If the problem is that there are not enough places manufacturing the vaccines, then why not simply spend hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for more? The biotech company GreenLight suggests building seven mRNA factories around the world, in developing nations, so that the entire global population is within a few days’ travel of one. The Center for Global Development suggests that the Biden administration should lead a global effort to invest in vaccine supply.

Saying you’ll waive IP rights is cheap in the worst sense of the word. It gets headlines and approving tweets but it won’t do much good and might do lots of harm. Instead: spend the money. Build factories. Give hundreds of billions of dollars of rich western taxpayers’ money to Covax. Stop trying to push the risk, cost and blame onto the pharma industry.

Of course, there are some long-term advantages if you open up IP. Other companies can build on your expertise and come up with new scientific breakthroughs: mRNA vaccines for other diseases, perhaps. Kremer, in a 1998 paper, suggested that governments should buy out pharma companies’ patents, at a fair price, and put them in the public domain. Then maybe, next time, there will be the global expertise required for thousands of small mRNA factories to pop up in Botswana and Bangladesh.

But right now, Western governments need to invest in factories. They need to invest in raw materials. They need to invest in staff and expertise. They need to spend money and get the vaccines to the developing world. This is a sideshow.

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Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago

Absolutely. Developing the IP is 10% of the job (maybe less), the majority of the effort goes into turning that IP into a process.
This can be best observed in the struggles that rogue states have in developing viable nuclear programs, even when the technology is well-understood. But we also saw how some AZ plants struggled to get full yield from their process earlier this year.
Government buying the patents is a fair way to reward innovation while opening up IP, but the best suggestion in the article is to literally “clone” successful plant designs.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark H

I agree completely. But there are a number of issues around the whole concept of IPR. A vaccine or any other biochemical product once it is distributed is not ‘black box’, and can be reverse engineered pretty easily. The whole concept of IPR or copyright or creators’ rights over music or media content etc only works on the basis that everyone agrees to operate under a fixed ubiquitous framework. Any government that wants to protect (or force open) IPR would need to have the muscle to be able to enforce/police a vast space so no one is allowed to operate outside the framework – and I suggest in reality there are no more than a handful of countries who could manage that realistically, and that at a huge cost. The US relies on it’s legal industry to do all that chasing, but most countries don’t have such a huge litigious private legal industry to fall back on, and even for the US this model does not scale, Say you copied some image from istock.com and put it on your website, without paying for the media. Well, you can expect a lawyers letter – but realistically only in half a dozen countries. In fact istock.com would have no easy means of chasing someone in China (or Chile) if they copied their content – especially if its millions or even just thousands doing it. And that entire concept of IPR, Copyright, Ownership over discoveries, Personal ownership over our own data, etc are a purely human construct that only persisted into the recent past (pre the recent rise of algorithmic technologies), because of a combination of human biology limits (speed, scale, memory etc) and societal conventions (law etc) before increasing numbers twig that the entire model can in fact be broken. Because the truth is, algorithmic technologies are not human scale and will increasingly brook none of these human constructions from the past going forwards, and nothing now prevents the mass replication and proliferation of literally all data about anything. Nothing I have seen to date indicates these entire sets of societal models around IPR/Copyright can in fact be maintained, even through the use of technology, and I suspect they are in transition on the way to breakdown, when chaos ensues thereafter.

Last edited 1 year ago by Prashant Kotak
Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

A vaccine … can be reverse engineered pretty easily.
A recent New York Times article, How Pfizer Makes Its Covid-19 Vaccine, made the production process for that vaccine appear anything but easy. Reverse engineering it would presumably be even more difficult.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“Third, why are we being so cheap? As I just said: the pandemic is costing trillions of dollars. The Nobel-prize-winning economist Michael Kremer estimates that shortening its span by one month would save $500 billion.”

Right, but just stopping Lockdowns would cause the same savings almost.

The virus was bad, the lockdowns the main problem. The pandemic did not cost Trillions, the lockdown and the insane response to it did. I still expect a huge depression to hit from the insanity of keeping people at home and so not producing, and giving them full pay.

Our purchasing went up, productivity down, and the difference met by printing money and buying goods from countries who kept working with that fake money. The container ships arrive full, leave empty. (Except for Germany, the only major Western nation who did OK)
I have liquidated some asserts and am buying 100 French 20 F gold Roosters tomorrow at a great price as I move my money where I guess safer, as I believe things are likely to really go bad. (Bought silver last year thinking a crash must come, but instead nothing but Bull Markets! I lost by exiting the huge Bull run, so have been wrong so far.) (never bought bit coin either)(:

So I may be wrong, but I think we just spent our way to national bankruptcy, almost all the experts say everything is fine, but I have this ‘Uncomfortable Feeling’ (the word for the pre 1929 crash feel when the markets kept growing and people felt worried by it, but invested anyway as there was so much money being made.)

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Absolutely. Mr. Big Pharma stroker Chivers you incessantly nauseate with your propaganda. It’s the lockdowns NOT the pandemic that’s causing ruination. We silly minions aren’t stupid. I bought gold and Bitcoin and am glad I did but fear anything could happen if lockdowns (no, not this minor pandemic) continue.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joe Blow
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

The UK Government has already done the world a massive favour by insisting AZ produce the vaccine at cost price in perpetuity for developing world customers. For their trouble, AZ has been [email protected] upon by all manner of European politicians, thus ensuring that far more doses of the expensive Pfizer and Moderna vaccines get used instead.
How would stealing the Oxford/AZ IPR actually improve matters?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
1 year ago

I wonder if people realize how patents work. Governments “buy” technological advance without money, by rewarding the investment of inventors with 20 years of exclusive commercial rights for inventions that pass a patent office’s exam. That is a brilliant arrangement, for all its known legal imperfections.
Compulsory licensing rules are clearly sufficient to address emergency situations where IP rights enforcement is demonstrated to indeed hamper availability of the invention to the public.

Now “waiving” the IP rights amounts to robbing the inventor, by changing the rules of the game once it suits the very Government that set the rules in the first place. That is unfair, inexcusable and potentially suicidal – just wait for the next pandemic.

Mr. Biden and the WHO fools may clutch at their romantic ideals as the world witness unprecedented death rates on the next pandemic, wondering if it was really worth it disincentivizing the research that could have avoided such tragedy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andre Lower
anne48_48
anne48_48
1 year ago

Is there any guarantee that if the IP is waived that companies who set up to make the vaccines will do so under the same stringent conditions?
No point in having vaccines which work from one company and not so well from another.

Susan Ball
Susan Ball
1 year ago

This is appalling. Why on earth not just use e medication that prevents and cures this disease? Ivermectin is safe and cheap, and a very effective anti-viral. Its astounding the tunnel vision of so-called authorities, seeing nothing but the “vaccine” and yet more of the same as an answer. Doesn’t anyone read the literature? The side-effects of the jab so far have been alarming, and the duration of this experiment is another 18 months. If reports of its “safety” are anything to go by, by then we will be far worse off. By contrast, Ivermectin has been used for decades, and with no adverse effects. Using it off-label does not make it suddenly unsafe. Combining it with anti-inflammatories and immune support has brought countless patients back from the brink, avoiding ventilators and reducing symptoms and hospital admissions. The real question is, why is this not supported and promoted by the “authorities”?

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Susan Ball

Here here. COVID did little to me and our two children. My wife had a worse reaction but with ivermectin she had a quick recovery in a week.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Great article. For better or worse, we rely on private businesses to research, develop and test most of our vaccines. For all its faults, the pharma industry did a superb job with the covid vaccines. We can’t afford to disincentive that activity.
No pharma company in its right mind will try to enforce a patent against, say, a manufacturer in India producing much-needed covid vaccines to combat the terrible outbreak in that country. It would be a PR disaster. Moreover, many countries in the developing world have compulsory licensing laws that can be used to force a company to license its IP at a government-mandated royalty rate (typically very low).
Ultimately, the vaccine patent wars will be between competing pharma companies alleging that, say, Pfizer used their patented technology to develop coronavirus vaccines. Those companies will not seek an injunction against all further infringing activity (again, that would be a PR nightmare if it interfered with vaccine production). They will seek monetary damages, aka a share of covid vaccine profits. At the end of the day, the patent wars are about pharma companies trying to get their share of the covid profit pie.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

mRNA vaccines are not the answer for the developing world. The storage temperature and logistical problems associated with it make it impossible for developing countries with large populations and poor infrastructure to get it into enough people quickly enough.
I refrained from commenting on Tom’s save India article because it was such patent nonsense. India has already injected 3 times as many vaccine doses as UK – over 150M. India was licenced very early, very cheaply to produce its own Oxford Astra Zeneca and it has developed its own and it has recently bought the Russian Sputnik 5. All of which are much cheaper to produce and don’t have the storage temperature problem. India’s problem is it has a massive population. So whilst UK has given vaccine doses equivalent to 75% of our population (not the same a vaccinating 75% of the population as nearly 25% of the population has had 2 doses) India has given doses equivalent to just under 12% of its population – a fact not mentioned in the nonsense article.
Tom is spot on with this one, it is just political posturing driven by ill informed media hysteria about the situation in India. It is amazing how mostly sensible people like Tom can still lose their heads when big sounding numbers start being bandied around in the media. 1.3Bn is the big number that needs to be used to put India into context.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago

Excellent article. There’s another fallacy that keeps getting repeated by senior sounding international aid people and politicians: that rich Western countries bought up all of the vaccine supply. This is so disingenuous or an outright lie.

Last edited 1 year ago by LUKE LOZE
Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

Could you elaborate? I haven’t come across anyone denying that rich nations have bought up the lion’s share of vaccines.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

The vaccines weren’t a limited existing resource that rich nations swooped on. The development and production of the vaccines was paid for by early investment by some rich nations (mainly US & UK). Without this early commitment there would be no Western vaccines.