To protect patients, first protect patents

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022

By Kenneth E. Thorpe

This spring, a U.S. negotiating team in Geneva made a deal that could have dire consequences for patients around the world.

Those negotiators — along with their counterparts in the European Union, India, and South Africa — threw their support behind a proposal that would effectively nullify intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines. Though ostensibly intended to make the shots more accessible, the deal will do the exact opposite — by discouraging the research investments that lead to lifesaving vaccines and treatments.


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Patients can only hope that negotiators come to their senses and back out of the deal.

In October 2020, before the shots were even approved by regulators, India and South Africa asked other member nations of the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The two countries claimed this unprecedented assault on intellectual property rights was necessary to combat the pandemic, since it would supposedly enable generic drug companies in developing countries to quickly manufacture and distribute cheap knockoff vaccines to patients that otherwise wouldn’t have access to the shots.

This claim was ridiculous then, and it’s ridiculous now. Vaccine developers inked hundreds of voluntary partnerships with other manufacturers — including many in the developing world — to rapidly scale up production.

Those companies collectively produced about 12 billion vaccines in the past year — enough to fully vaccinate every adult on the planet — and the world has the capacity to produce another 20 billion this year.

In fact, far from a shortage of vaccines, there’s now a glut.

The CEO of the Serum Institute recently explained that he has 400 million vaccines in storage, and that his company has halted production until new orders come in. Likewise, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recently requested a pause on vaccine donations until later in the year, saying that he worries that new donations will expire before they can be used.

Yet despite all the evidence showing that patent protections aren’t hindering the supply of vaccines to developing countries, India and South Africa seem to have finally gotten what they wanted. This deal is a slightly slimmed down version of their original request.

The timing of the deal is more than a little odd. India and South Africa have effectively sided with Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine — yet U.S. negotiators are now poised to reward both nations.

More importantly, the deal — if it’s approved by all 164 World Trade Organization member nations — will hamstring scientists’ ability to respond to new COVID-19 variants and future pandemics, putting patients at risk. Intellectual property protections enable companies to innovate, take risks on research and development projects, and rapidly respond to public health needs with confidence.

There is still time for the Biden administration to reverse course. This IP waiver is a proposal in search of a problem, and it could have dire consequences for the scientific research that ultimately saves patients’ lives.


Dr. Kenneth E. Thorpe is Robert W. Woodruff professor and chair in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. He is an advisory board member of the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease. He can be reached via