COVID-19 Vaccine Patents – Q&A


The Covid vaccine waiver debate is causing waves in the world of intellectual property and the ripples are starting to be noticed by the wider public.

So what’s going on?

Our handy Q&A guide should go some way to explaining what all the fuss is about and why the waiver is not a silver bullet that will increase supply and access to vaccines. 


Q. What’s the story?

The WHO in tandem with the WTO and 100 member countries are pushing for a comprehensive patent waiver for all COVID-19 vaccines with the aim of sharing vaccines and manufacturing knowledge with the developing world.

The proposal seemed to be facing defeat until the US changed its stance and unlike other wealthy countries, decided to throw its considerable weight behind it.


Q. Why did the US change its stance?

The proposal received a new lease of life when the US performed a u-turn and backed the proposal in early May. 

This represents a shift in the US where policymakers have become increasingly sceptical of IP in life sciences mainly due to the sky-high drug prices in the US.

This is a bold move from a country that has been one of the most vocal defenders of IP rights. Whether it is a means for the US government to exert pressure on vaccine makers to be more open to sharing their current ideas through voluntary licensing remains to be seen.


Q. What would the waiver mean?

The waiver in theory would allow more vaccines to be produced in poorer countries.

It would temporarily suspend the international framework of standards for patent and IP related to vaccines.

Proponents of the proposal argue that the waiver will result in a pooling of intellectual property that should speed up vaccine manufacturing in the places that need it the most i.e. the poorer countries.

To put it into context, of the 1.1 billion COVID vaccines delivered worldwide fewer than 18 million have been deployed in Africa.


Q. Why are pharmaceutical companies opposed?

Pharmaceutical companies have argued that they have already been active in sharing their licenses so vaccines can be manufactured globally. There is also the argument that the waiver could create a ‘wild west’ situation where the quality and efficacy of the vaccines is compromised.

They also assert that the true obstacles are not IP rights, but trade barriers and supply chain issues that are creating bottlenecks that prevent vaccines from being distributed rapidly and widely. 


Q. Will the waiver proposal succeed?

US involvement certainly increases the chances of the waiver being implemented, but in order to pass, the proposal must have the backing of every WTO member, meaning the chances of it passing in its current guise is slim.

Anything that does pass is likely to be watered down and even if a reduced proposal is implemented, it may not solve the issue of vaccine inequality. The other issue is that vaccine deployment also relies on a specific technical manufacturing process which the WTO does not have the power to rule over. The problem can only be solved if technical know-how and data are shared and it is not clear if governments or the WTO could even compel companies to share this. 

“It remains to be seen if the blanket waiver of patent rights will have the desired effect on access and increased manufacturing of vaccines. Manufacturers have been under pressure to increase supply which is resulting in companies like Moderna agreeing to not enforce their IP during this crisis.”

- Dr Flavio Toxvaerd, University Lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge.


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