As the race for a COVID-19 vaccine speeds up, countries, especially developing countries, are starting to express concerns about how it will be created, patented, made and distributed. Indonesia recently asked the International Coordination Group (ICG), a group of countries working on the COVID-19 pandemic response to seek fair distribution of the vaccine to every country in the world.
The concern appears to be the classic access to medicines one, albeit with a new pandemic driven urgency. Flexibility of intellectual property rules will be needed; that is, patents must not be used to prevent access to a vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic would almost certainly fits within the Doha Exception to the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.
With so many companies in different countries working on procuring a vaccine the need for collaboration in development as well as production will be a test of the world's IP and other cooperation systems. Patent owners will need to decide if they will patent or not. Many will likely need to cooperate to accelerate the quality and efficacy testing process, and governments must fast track regulatory approvals. Then the process for making available and pricing must be considered. Will the TRIPS mechanism be used for governments to authorize themselves, or third parties, to make use of a patent without the permission of the patent owner through compulsory licensing? Once that is worked out, how will manufacture and distribution potentially to billions of people occur? Even doing that alone will be difficult, before you consider the risk of hoarding and disputes.
Brazil, Indonesia and others are now seeing media discussions about these issues. In May the US rejected wording in a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution that backed the rights of poorer countries to ignore patents to gain access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Trump’s America First policy worries many outside the US. So too does the continued assertion that China is somehow to blame.
Public health experts and campaigners believe it is vital to pull together to end the pandemic. EU has taken a lead; leaders in Italy, France, Germany and Norway, together with the European Commission and Council, called recently for all innovative tools, therapeutics or vaccines to be shared equally and fairly.