Getting the world vaccinated against COVID-19
The latest data on the situation regarding production of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination rates show that production continues to outpace the speed with which vaccines end up in people’s arms. At this moment 2.1 billion vaccines are stuck in fridges in warehouses around the world. These vaccines risk going to waste and being destroyed if they are not being administered. This is a realistic possibility, as vaccine demand has been steadily decreasing since November 2021. Hence we are seeing a radically different picture from this time last year. Today, rather than the monthly output of around 1 billion each month, production is levelling off and vaccine manufacturing capacities are being scaled back. For example, on 26 April the Serum Institute of India announced it was halting the production of the AZ vaccine while Aspen in South Africa has indicated on 5 May that it will have to reduce its production capacity by 50% if demand does not pick up.
The key challenges was and still is, therefore, not the production of COVID-19 vaccines – this ramped up in a matter of months in 2021 thanks to 372 voluntary licencing agreements which made it possible to mobilise manufacturing capacities and know-how globally. It is rather, according the WHO, the concrete challenges of vaccination: due to limited absorptive capacities of healthcare systems in some countries, lack of coordination and political commitment, complexity of handling vaccines, and vaccine hesitancy. The TRIPS waiver being discussed is therefore a bad solution to a problem that does not even exist.
The TRIPS waiver, or any other effort to weaken IP, is also a bad solution because it would have a profound negative effect on future global health security. As the world struggles to learn the lessons of this pandemic, our focus should be on measures that can effectively address challenges encountered during the pandemic rather than undermine our ability to respond to one. The latter include feeding the already rampant spread of misinformation on product quality, putting additional regulatory burdens when in a pandemic speed is of the essence, and undermining innovation, as it puts into doubt the intellectual property framework that underpins the scientific endeavour itself and technology transfer thereafter. Fink (2022) estimates that the broader societal benefit of COVID-19 vaccines has amounted to $70.5 trillion globally. A TRIPS waiver would undermine these massive global social benefits as future pandemic preparedness through innovation will be reduced.
R&D to underpin our response to COVID-19 did not start in March 2020 and it has not stopped. Various innovation breakthroughs upon which existing COVID-19 vaccines depend, started in 1996, and most relevant patent applications were filed before December 2019. In a paper, the WTO states: “The successful development of COVID-19 vaccines benefits from years of medical research and development before and after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic”. A great deal of R&D into COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is still ongoing today. Over half of all research investments still have to be made as only 5.4% of all researched COVID-19 vaccines and 2.0% of treatments have received regulatory approvals.
87% of all COVID-19 related patents were filed in Europe and the US. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that 94% of the €43 billion in investment losses will be borne by richer economies (especially the EU, US, Switzerland, UK, Japan, and key partners) where most of the R&D takes place. While these costs are much smaller than the massive social costs if we are not prepared for a next pandemic (Fink, 2022), they have direct production and employment effects. This immediate and long-term negative economic shock comes at a time when economic growth and prosperity are already under huge strain because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The best solution to ensure we improve our focus on global health security and reduce its social and economic impact is to continue supporting what has enabled us to respond to this pandemic: innovation. A thriving innovation environment for vaccines and treatments for the current COVID-19 and future pandemics, should be non-negotiable.
So, as negotiations go to the wire at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference, there is ample reason for the many WTO members that have concerns to speak up and say that a bad deal is worse than a no-deal at all, not only for patients and future pandemic preparedness, but also for the WTO itself. The best solution to support vaccinations in countries that are still lagging behind, is to support country healthcare system readiness, and to remove distribution obstacles. This sits alongside the WTO’s critical work to tackle trade barriers such as export restrictions. In contrast to the TRIPS waiver, that is a political distraction at best, the Trade and Health Initiative (TAHI) can play a significant and meaningful role, but needs to have a high level of ambition to make a meaningful impact.
 Applying Lessons Learned from COVID-19 to Create a Healthier, Safer, More Equitable World - IFPMA
 Fink, C. (2022). Calculating private and social returns to COVID-19 vaccine innovation. WIPO Economic Research Working Paper No. 68. World Intellectual Property Organization.