Overriding patents won’t help EU Covid jab drive

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Overriding patents won’t help EU Covid jab drive

Faced by a mounting crisis with the European Union’s Covid vaccination programmes, Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Wednesday that “all options are on the table” to speed up Europe’s vaccine rollout.

“We are in the crisis of the century. I am not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said. 

The Commission is considering all kinds of emergency measures to address supply woes, including export bans and even invoking Article 122 of the EU’s treaty, which allows it to control the distribution of essential goods if “severe difficulties arise” in securing supplies.

This would require the suspension of vaccine intellectual property (IP) rights in Europe to enable more companies to make the jabs.

The idea that vaccine supply challenges will be solved if only more companies are able to manufacture them is seductive, but misguided. It is not as simple as suspending patents and putting a recipe on the internet. 

Many vaccines are made by growing viruses in cells. Mistakes here can lead to losses in production and delayed timelines. Every aspect of the manufacturing process is tightly scrutinised by regulators, adding further delay. 

Meanwhile, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are a novel technology based on “messenger” DNA (mRNA) which is fragile and needs to be handled carefully, with complex processes to produce it and exact requirements to keep it stable. 

Few manufacturers have these capabilities and it would take many months to transfer the technology to others so they can set up new factories: by which point the EU vaccination programme will be in its final stages and many other vaccines will be on the market. 

Far better to continue on the current path, in which manufacturers contract out various aspects of production to other specialist companies – from vial production, to filling and finish. 

Other manufacturers are meeting supply commitments by licensing vaccine production in entirety to partners, such as the recent deal with French company Sanofi to support the manufacture of 125m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for European use. Such partnerships should produce 10bn doses by the end of 2021, enough to immunise everyone in the world.

Far from being a barrier to supply, IPRs are crucial to these partnerships because they help commercial rivals to co-operate and share valuable proprietary knowledge, knowing it is legally protected from misuse.

A zero IP approach, on the other hand, would derail the dozens of vaccine manufacturing licensing deals, and throw global supply chains into chaos. And for no real benefit, because bringing new manufacturers online would take far longer than letting the existing partnerships continue to scale-up production.

With IP forcibly removed, few companies will want to invest in new vaccines for the next pandemic if they stand to have little control over the output. Removing IP would also limit commercial interest in refining existing vaccines, to improve storage requirements for instance, or to address new variants of the virus. 

For a continent that derives significant economic advantage from the innovative industries that call it home, this would be a serious own-goal.

In the end, removing IP rights from vaccines would achieve little other than provide a political diversion from the well-documented problems with EU vaccination programmes, from vaccine hesitancy to cumbersome local bureaucracy. Policymakers should focus on these issues, instead of risking the real progress that is being made.

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