The Biden administration recently announced it supports a waiver of intellectual property (IP) protections on Covid-19 vaccines in order to end the pandemic. This is on the back of mounting social pressure as well as India and South Africa petitioning the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to issue a waiver on the TRIPS agreement, an agreement ensuring WTO members extensive protection of IP. The Biden administration coming out in favour of wavering such protections is a large step in stopping the continuing asymmetry seen in vaccine distribution. 84% of the vaccines administered have gone to high- and upper-middle-income countries with a shameful 0.3% of vaccines going to low-income countries. While we expect to see 90 million vaccines delivered to low-income countries through Covax, low-income countries will still be struggling to afford vaccines.
Covid-19 vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen Pharmaceuticals & AstraZeneca have been primarily funded by the public sector. With that being said, both Moderna & Jassen Pharmaceuticals have stated they will not enforce the Covid-19 patent. Although this is welcomed, it disregards any other drugs produced as a direct result of this publicly funded R&D. Drugs could be produced as a function of this R&D which can then be sold for an exorbitant amount, a staple tactic from ‘big pharma’.
It’s just a question of when they get their money
While Moderna & Janssen Pharmaceuticals are at least not enforcing their patents on the Covid-19 vaccines, the same cannot be said for Pfizer & AstraZeneca. Both pharmaceutical giants are against an IP waiver. The reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to abandon patents on Covid-19 vaccines exposes what big pharma is at its core, an industry interested in profits over people. The longer we prevent low-income countries from producing the vaccine the more people will die as a consequence of Covid-19. Whether that happens or not, it doesn’t matter in the eyes of Pfizer’s shareholders, the vaccines will get sold and the company will profit. It’s just a question of when they get their money.
The conversation surrounding patents & the Covid-19 vaccine can be generalised to almost any pharmaceutical patent. In order to produce/invent any drug, you have to rely on the reservoir of previous knowledge. All of this essential knowledge has been accumulated over decades/centuries and is a public good. When something such as a new vaccine is invented, you are simply adding to this extensive reservoir of knowledge.
The concept of anyone dying due to the price of any drug is grotesque
From a more practical perspective, around 97% of all patents never recoup the cost of filing them. Why? Small companies and start-ups do not have the financial resources to defend their intellectual property. This is in stark contrast to huge corporations who can afford to spend huge sums of money in order to defend their intellectual property. From this we can see what the true function of patents are, a tool for large corporations to extract grand profits from products produced from public knowledge/publicly funded research. It is a damning reminder of how companies use the state in order to further their own agenda.
All things considered, it is rather obvious that no pharmaceutical company should be enforcing any patents when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines or pharmaceutical drugs generally. The concept of anyone dying due to the price of any drug is grotesque. It truly exemplifies how inhumane the commodification of healthcare is. The idea that something as simple as this is a polarising issue demonstrates how easily cognitive dissonance emerges from a capitalist mode of production.
Covid-19 provides a unique opportunity for us to reconsider how we fundamentally view patents. While the Biden administration and other WTO members should push to abolish patents generally, the most that can be hoped for is a waiver on IP for Covid-19 vaccines.