28 Jan 2021

Should patents apply to Covid vaccines?

From Nine To Noon, 9:10 am on 28 January 2021

There's concern in Europe over delays to Covid-19 vaccines, after manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca both warned of production delays. That's led to legal threats by Italy and Poland and demands by the European Union for the companies to deliver on the billions invested in vaccine development.

New Zealand is expected to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine next week, and the Director-General of Health says he doesn't expect any delivery delays because of what's happening in Europe.

However, a professor in the economics of disasters, Victoria University's Ilan Noy, says countries should be pushing for the patents to be lifted on vaccines to help increase production.

A French pharmacist holds a vial of the undiluted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, stored at -70 °, on 15 January, 2021.

Photo: AFP

He tells Nine to Noon it’s disappointing to see countries acting in their own national interest rather than recognising it’s a global pandemic, which doesn’t discriminate, and the vaccine needs to reach far and wide.

“As long as we don’t deal with this on a global level, we will see variants of this virus pop up again and again and those variants will become resistant to the vaccines. We need to solve this at a global level, not have these vaccine wars that we’re seeing.”

Noy says that if countries don’t cooperate and the supply side bottleneck of vaccine can’t be remedied, we could end up back at square one having to develop a new vaccine.

“We have working vaccines, we know how to produce them, but we still let every single company that owns the patent rights to these vaccines to keep it and only produce in house.”

He says Covax, a group of nations including New Zealand putting money toward other countries getting sufficient vaccine, is a good idea but is chronically underfunded and won’t have enough money to buy doses.

“Covax is an attempt to put a band-aid over a much bigger problem. Rich countries donating some money to buy vaccine doses and throw them at poorer countries is not enough, especially because they’re not donating enough money to buy enough vaccines.”

Noy says there’s precedent in pharmaceutical companies dropping patents so that poorer countries can have life-saving medicine and there are rules within the World Trade Organisation for it to proceed.

One famous example was a life-saving HIV medication which was prohibitively expensive, so the drug companies dropped the patent and produced at cost in the early 2000s after public outcry and lobbying from Dr Anthony Fauci.

“For some reason, governments are reluctant to do it now and it’s not clear why. Much of the funding for the development of the funding for these vaccines came from the public purse, not the private companies, so I don’t see any argument as to why we shouldn’t consider it.”

Noy says there needs to be coordinated public and political pressure put on the pharmaceutical companies to force them to open more manufacturing of vaccine around the world.

“The World Health Organisation is a notoriously weak organisation, it needs to work through consensus. It’s very difficult to get it to move. That’s why we need public and political pressure from governments, the UN, the WTO to pressure the pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s not going to happen just because the secretary of the WHO decides it’s the right thing to do because the secretary of the WHO is powerless.”