Operation Warp Speed, the crash program to develop and distribute vaccines for the novel coronavirus, has been a tremendous success. But while the vaccinations are proceeding at a good pace in the United States (65 million doses as of this writing), the developing world is being left behind.
Last week, the Biden administration announced it would participate in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), a public-private partnership created to purchase and distribute billions of vaccines worldwide. This is an extraordinarily positive development that the Trump administration actively spurned, even though immunizing the developing world is essential to a return to normal for everyone else on Earth. But to refill the United States’ “reservoir of goodwill” which has been draining since the end of the Cold War and left empty by the Trump administration, the Biden administration must do more. An excellent additional step would be to make freely available to all nations the intellectual property and technical know-how necessary to manufacture and distribute coronavirus vaccines.
While commitments to purchase large quantities of vaccines to be distributed worldwide is an essential part of the solution, there can only be so many doses produced by the firms that hold the legal rights to manufacture these drugs. These efforts must be supplemented by drug manufacturers worldwide, such as those in India and South Africa.
These two nations, along with others, have petitioned the World Trade Organization to suspend certain treaty obligations concerning intellectual property rights on COVID-related technologies. Such a waiver would release developing nations from the restrictions imposed by other nations’ intellectual property rights for COVID-related technology, and is opposed by the United States, Switzerland, and many EU member states.
While the United States should immediately reverse its position on the issue, reluctance on the part of other nations with powerful pharmaceutical lobbies may still prevent such measures from going forward. If such is the case, then the Biden administration should pursue more aggressive measures like compulsory licensing of coronavirus-related intellectual property to outside drug manufacturers. To sweeten the deal, additional payments should be made to American pharmaceutical companies to share all necessary knowledge — including, but not limited to patents — with firms around the world.
While pharmaceutical manufacturing cannot turn on a dime, analysis from Knowledge Ecology International’s Luis Abinader found that vaccine delivery can begin about six months after the beginning of technology transfer. If current trends continue, billions of people may not have access to a vaccine until 2022, making time of the essence.
Even those with the most callous indifference to those suffering around the world must recognize a simple fact: failure to throw everything but the kitchen sink into global vaccination efforts will come back to bite us. For now, it appears that the vaccines currently administered in the United States are effective against the South African variant of the virus (though less effective than against the original strain.) But every transmission is another opportunity to mutate, and each mutation is another opportunity for the virus to become deadlier, more contagious, and less responsive to the vaccines now on the market.
If vaccines had been available for everyone this time last year, then there likely wouldn’t be any COVID-19, let alone any variants. It’s impossible to turn back the clock, but foreclosing future opportunities for mutation is only possible if vaccination accelerates.
The traditional justification for protecting pharmaceutical IP rights and the need to encourage a healthy return for drug manufacturers by guaranteeing legal exclusivity fails miserably in the current pandemic. First, there simply aren’t enough doses to go around right now, and there won’t be if we rely only on currently licensed manufacturers. Supply must be expanded dramatically, and the only way to do that is to lower the legal barriers artificially created by intellectual property laws.
Second, legal exclusivity isn’t the only way to guarantee a healthy return on research and development. Large transfer payments work. Operation Warp Speed is proof of this, as are the hundreds of millions of dollars of NIH spending in the decades before the current outbreak researching coronaviruses.
Tahir Amin of the Institute for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge described the current reluctance to relax or suspend COVID-related IP rights as “an old, quasi-colonial economic order that disadvantages poor countries,” and he’s not wrong. These laws hamper the development of pharmaceutical industries abroad and impose wealthy nations' legal regime onto poorer ones. If the Biden administration wants to repair the United States’ global image, it can do so by releasing the knowledge that has already been paid for many times over. Such a move will, in turn, pay for itself many times over- in lives, money, and goodwill.
Daniel Takash is a regulatory policy fellow at the Niskanen Center