26 Apr
2021

Get smarter about covid patents or pay the price

Demanding the suspension of patent rights to get more covid-19 vaccines to low- and medium-income countries is an attractive sound-bite. But it is an entirely counter-productive one

Patents are increasingly being blamed for the failure to scale-up and roll-out covid-19 vaccines, especially in low- and medium-income states. The terrible pictures and stories coming out of countries such as India and Brazil will only lead to more criticism and demands that patent rights are waived. Here, though, is an alternative perspective:

  • Patents are not secret, they are published.
  • Patents are national rights.
  • The US, the UK, EU member states and other high-income countries control patents within their own territories.
  • They have no control over patents outside of their own territories.
  • Any country can override a patent within its territory at any time.
  • Covid-related vaccines have no patent protection in the vast majority of low- and medium-income countries.
  • That means they do not even need to be overridden in those countries.
  • In fact, there are very few granted patents directly concerned with covid anywhere right now.
  • Patent owners - from universities through start-ups and SMEs to Big Pharma - have played a pivotal role in the near miraculous development and roll-out of covid-19 vaccines from scratch in less than a year. 
  • The job they have done is a cause for celebration. 
  • For many people, that is an inconvenient truth.
  • They see patents as a way to take the political narrative to somewhere that is more comfortable. 
  • However, patents are a distraction. By far the biggest issues around covid vaccine roll-out are lack of production capacity and raw materials supply.
  • Access to the know-how and data necessary to work the inventions underpinned by patents is also an important issue.
  • Forcing companies to share that data and know-how would be very hard to do and would take a great deal of time because, unlike patents, neither are published. Instead, by their very natures, both are highly confidential and therefore hard to police externally.
  • So, probably the quickest way to scale-up covid vaccine roll-out would be to identify potential production facilities across the globe, while building out materials supply lines, and putting both under the direct control of covid-19 vaccine patent holders.
  • No-one seems to be suggesting doing this, though.
  • Funny that!

The fact is that patents and patent owners are an easy target here. Attacking them gets headlines and makes people feel like they are doing something. Patent owners undoubtedly have a very important role to play in upscaling vaccine production. So, putting them on the defensive at a time when getting their cooperation is by far the biggest priority is entirely counter-productive. We need to get smarter. And quickly. This is no time for political games.  

Happy World IP Day.

Joff Wild

Author | Editor-in-chief

[email protected]

Joff Wild