A recent rise in coronavirus cases in India have created renewed interest in the debate surrounding coronavirus vaccine patents. Developing countries, such as India, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic as they are unable to effectively contain or control the virus. They have been relying on aid from wealthier countries to manage the situation, and they especially rely on receiving vaccines. However, many are calling for patents to be waived so that generic versions of the vaccine may be produced.
The call for the waive of patents is centered on a proposal in the World Trade Organization that would allow its member nations to stop enforcing coronavirus related patents during the pandemic. India and South Africa, two countries hit particularly hard by the pandemic, led this call. They argued that relaxing patents would allow more countries to produce or import vaccines, eliminating the need to wait for months, or possibly years, to receive enough vaccines to immunize populations. Many developing countries have also signed onto this proposal. However, the US and other wealthy countries have blocked this petition. Officials are worried that the petition may throw global vaccine production in disarray as new manufacturers compete for limited vaccine ingredients, possibly hindering current production.
Advocates have complained that the White House is prioritizing the profits of pharmaceutical companies over the lives of people. Companies are stated to have treated vaccines as commodities instead of public good. Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies — Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca — were all accused of not doing enough to manufacture vaccines.
These companies have countered this by stating that they have already taken dramatic steps, such as collaborating in vaccine development to produce 10 billion doses, 1.5 billion of which were reserved for poorer countries. Industry officials have also stated that increasing production will aid the hard hit nations more than establishing new manufacturing facilities as it would take many years before new facilities would be able to meet all protocols. In addition, the drug industry experts — as well as business and outside intellectual property experts — warn that loosening patents will cause legal challenges once the pandemic is over. Rival nations are eager to learn the secret technologies used in vaccine production that are supported by billions of US tax dollars; loosening patents will be essentially handing over intellectual property.
Thus, officials are divided on how to proceed. Some have pushed the patent issue as a leverage to increase global efforts of the pharmaceutical industry, while others are worried this may hinder US coronavirus responses. There is a further debate on how many million stockpiled doses to donate.
The old accusation that wealthy countries and companies hoard expertise and treatments, while less fortunate countries wait, has been renewed. Parallels have been drawn between the coronavirus vaccines and HIV medication patents in the 1990s. Drug companies with HIV medication patents were pitted against health officials of developing countries trying to make generic versions. This culminated with Nelson Mandela accusing companies of attempting to profit off of the outbreak in South Africa, prompting drug companies to back down.
The White House, and the US as a result, are split as a result of the debate over coronavirus vaccine patents. Progressives believe the Biden administration has wrongly sided with the pharmaceutical industry, while centrists believe that patent protections must be preserved. International aid experts and officials dealing with domestic virus response are divided in this debate, as officials believe that efforts to increase the global supply of vaccines will undermine efforts for dealing with the pandemic in the US. Progressive lawmakers believe the current dilemma to be a chance to be a test of the moral authority of the US in the world: a chance to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration and re-establish the reputation of the US as a public health leader. Other lawmakers oppose the loosening of patents, warning that it would hurt the US on a global level.