Breaking against decades of foreign policy and the expectations of many geopolitics experts, the Biden administration has just stated support for a proposal in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines in order to speed up production around the world.
The Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights waiver proposal, put forward by India and South Africa in October of 2020, would waive patent protections for many vaccines and pieces of medical equipment, allowing them to be produced by countries all over the world. The Biden administration has only agreed to pursue waiving the patent for vaccines, however. This agreement has gained increasing pertinence as breakouts in India have grown more dire, where there are currently 22 million active cases — a number growing by hundreds of thousands a day.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the waiver will take months to pass in the best of cases, considering it requires unanimous consent of the 164 member nations of the WTO for talks to even get started in full. The United States was previously one of the holdouts preventing the deal, but there are now still others, most saliently the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Even if the waiver is to pass, it will be a drop in the bucket in comparison to what needs to be done to stave off vaccine inequity — only one percent of the population in low-income countries have as of writing been vaccinated, even as rich countries like the United States are rapidly approaching distributing more vaccines than can be used. Similarly, the medical technology and specialized knowledge required for the production of the vaccine would not be delivered simply by waiving the patent.
Furthermore, waiving patents does not prevent governments from engaging in inequitable distribution on their own. The most disgusting example of vaccine inequity is Israel, wherein the country has denied vaccines to Palestinian residents in the occupied regions of Gaza and the West Bank. The denial of vaccine doses to the Palestinian population is a moral atrocity, an attempt at ethnic cleansing and considered a war crime by the Geneva Convention, which requires occupying nations to provide healthcare to people in occupied territories.
Even if the plight of millions trying to survive the deadly virus is unconvincing, allowing the vaccine to spread in lower-income countries will aid in the construction of new variants of the virus. One such variant, first tracked in the sparsely-vaccinated South Africa, is so brutal as to render many current vaccines ineffectual. If rich nations do not ensure that the world is swiftly and equitably vaccinated, there could come a time in the very near future where all present vaccine progress will be rendered useless in the face of a devastating new COVID-19 variant.
So, what can be done? Firstly, the U.S. can utilize emergency powers to enforce vaccine manufacturers to share information, practices and equipment with manufacturers around the world. If negotiations in the WTO take too long, the U.S. can also exercise an emergency power never before used (it was once threatened during the early 2000’s anthrax scares) to seize patents from vaccine manufacturers unilaterally. This could allow the U.S. to bypass the WTO and spread manufacturing information around the world immediately, albeit with likely legal challenges. Regardless of whether or not the powers are exercised, threats to do so can cause vaccine manufacturers to produce extra vaccines to stem outbreaks around the world in order to reduce political pressure on them.
Vaccine manufacturers have reported billions and billions of dollars of profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even companies who funded failed attempts to produce vaccines have been able to recoup their investment by assisting companies who have created vaccines with increased manufacturing capacity. Any argument that patent waivers will reduce innovation is ridiculous when faced with any of the facts of the matter. The profit turned already has dramatically recouped all investment, and the return will surely grow as the companies continue to produce shots and boosters for years to come.
Furthermore, the political situation is so unique and dangerous as to provide no indication that any serious long term change in the United States’s intellectual property regulations would arrive. This is all to say that any and all ways that the U.S. can strongarm vaccine producers will be exclusively to the benefit of the world. Similarly, billions of dollars must be spent around the world for medical infrastructure in order to effectively get the world vaccinated. When millions are dying, marginal profit should not be a consideration.
Lila Graham ’22 is from
Her major is philosophy.