Canada should block a patent waiver for COVID vaccines

Granting a one-time waiver creates dangerous precedent of nullifying IP rights, jeopardizing future innovation and lives of literally billions of virus victims

Global Affairs Canada still has not come to a decision on whether to support an intellectual property rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. Canada, along with the U.S., EU, U.K., Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Australia and Brazil, have all delayed deciding on the “TRIPS waiver” put forward by India and South Africa last year. TRIPS is the “Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights” part of the WTO.

India and South Africa are supported by a coalition including Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and World Health Organization Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Their argument in favour of the waiver is simple: it would remove the legal barriers that prevent developing countries from producing their own vaccines with the technology developed by vaccine firms.

Waiver supporters argue that because COVID represents such a global threat and because the vaccines have now been developed, low and middle-income countries should be allowed to manufacture them on their own — those that have the technology and human capital to do so, that is.

Although the goal of increasing vaccine availability in the developing world is both noble and attainable, an IP waiver is a bad way to go about achieving it. Nullifying IP rights destroys the bedrock of what makes medical innovation possible. Intellectual property rights are protections that help foster innovation and provide legal certainty to innovators so they can profit from and fund their efforts. A weakening of IP rules would actively hurt everyone who depends on innovative medicines and vaccines, including the world’s most vulnerable.

If the cost of researching and producing a COVID vaccine is $1 billion, with no guarantee of success, there are relatively few biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies that can stomach that cost. In the case of COVID, considering the specialized knowledge needed to develop these vaccines and the cold storage infrastructure required to distribute some of them, it seems implausible that they could have been developed without the traditional procurement contracts we’ve seen in North America.

BioNTech, the German company headed by the husband-wife team of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci that partnered with Pfizer for trials and distribution of their mRNA vaccine, was originally founded to try to develop ways of using mRNA techniques to cure cancer. Before the pandemic, it took on massive debt and scrambled to fund its research. Once the pandemic began, it pivoted its operations and produced one of the first mRNA COVID vaccines, which hundreds of millions of people have received.

Originally published here.

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