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A health worker fills a syringe with a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, in West Chester, Pa., on Dec. 29, 2020.Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

Big Pharma wants you to believe that a patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines – endorsed this week by U.S. President Joe Biden – will rob them of profits and ruin their ability to innovate and create other life-saving vaccines.

Don’t believe them. The financial incentives to invent vaccines won’t disappear just because the patent on one type is suspended temporarily. But Big Pharma is right to argue that sharing COVID-19 vaccine technology will not magically end the supply shortage.

Manufacturing vaccines, especially those that use the recently developed messenger RNA technology, such as the one jointly developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, is exceedingly complex. At best, a patent waiver removes only one of many obstacles to boosting the supply of vaccines needed to snuff out the pandemic. Still, it’s an encouraging start as well as a compelling goodwill gesture from the Biden White House to vaccine-starved countries.

The White House announcement, made through U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, came as a surprise. The government has always considered lengthy and leak-proof patents a cornerstone of American capitalism. Indeed, the declaration from Ms. Tai said “the Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections.”

What changed? By now, it’s apparent that the COVID-19 variants are evil beasts that can proliferate with alarming efficiency. They will keep coming on strong unless the whole world is vaccinated. All of Africa, population 1.3 billion, has seen a little more than 20 million vaccines. Any region where the vaccination rates are less than the accepted herd immunity level of about 70 per cent are a risk to everyone’s health, as well as the wider economic recovery.

The White House’s endorsement of patent waivers on vaccines doesn’t mean technology sharing will happen overnight – or at all. Consensus has to be reached among the member countries of the World Trade Organization and at least one big country, Germany, is outright opposed to the idea. Several other biggies, including Canada and the European Union, are on the fence. Even the Biden administration acknowledges the patent waiver talks “will take time.”

Translation: months, not weeks, and possibly a year or longer, after which we could be in a much more dangerous world, or much safer one – impossible to tell.

Big Pharma is on the side of the German government, which stated that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so.”

Germany is stating the obvious, of course. But Big Pharma is not going to stop developing vaccines just because the blueprint for their COVID-19 vaccines will be slapped on the internet, for all to copy.

Morally, they can’t stop because they evolved into semi-state creatures during the pandemic, supported by lavish taxpayer subsidies and government contracts. That support has removed much of the risk from developing and producing the vaccines. And if the patents do get suspended, Big Pharma should be able to negotiate royalty payments to cover a portion of the lost profits.

What’s more, the pandemic has accelerated global public acceptance of their technologies – especially the mRNA technology used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines – all but ensuring that future products built on similar platforms will be hot sellers.

Big Pharma has little to worry about even if the patents are suspended quickly. Inventing vaccines is one thing; making them is another. Very few countries have the capability to start production fast.

Factories and distribution networks would have to be built. A single vaccine-bottle filling machine, such as the ones made by Italy’s Marchesini Group, can cost US$10-million. Employees would have to be trained and certifications obtained. In some countries, the regulatory framework for vaccine production and safety measures would have to be modified or created.

The mRNA vaccines – the ones the whole world wants – would be especially hard to make because they are new technology that requires dedicated equipment. That equipment is not deployed beyond the companies that work with short synthetic DNA sequences, known as oligonucleotides.

Obtaining the enzymes to make the mRNA vaccines would be difficult, and their patents would have to be suspended too – no sure thing. Vaccines that use inactivated pathogens, such as those produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm of China, rely on older technology that would be somewhat easier to manufacture.

Given these hurdles, patent suspension might only nudge the supply needle in the right direction; it certainly won’t be a game changer even if it is the morally correct response to a global crisis that is getting worse by the day in some countries, notably India, Brazil and Iran.

Still, patent suspension should be pursued. The mere threat of it might spur Big Pharma to intensify their efforts to boost production and sell extra supplies to poor countries at bargain prices. There is really no losing scenario for any side as the pandemic endures.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.


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