Everything you need to know about the WTO's COVID-19 vaccine patent proposal
TORONTO -- The Canadian government is considering whether or not to lend its support to a World Trade Organization’s (WTO) proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) rights and patents on COVID-19 vaccines, as pressure mounts to follow the example set by the U.S.
Dozens of Canadian MPs across all parties have signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to “eliminate all potential barriers to the timely access of affordable COVID-19 medical products, including vaccines and medicines, and scale up the manufacturing and supply of essential medical products.”
On Friday, Minister of Small Business, Export and International Trade Mary Ng said in a statement that “Canada is ready to discuss proposals on a waiver for intellectual property protection…we understand that the pandemic isn’t over anywhere until it is over everywhere.”
Trudeau later echoed Ng’s statement at a Friday briefing, saying the government “remains committed to finding solutions and reaching an agreement that accelerates global vaccine production and does not negatively impact public health.”
U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he supports the WTO's proposal to hammer out an agreement to lift COVID-19 vaccine patent protections.
Here’s everything you need to know about the proposal, vaccine patents and how IP rights work:
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
The WTO has urged member nations to collaborate on an agreement to temporarily ease the rules protecting intellectual property behind coronavirus vaccines.
The proposal to waive some patents and technology in an effort to boost vaccine production in developing countries was first put forth at the WTO by South Africa and India last October, but was blocked by the U.S. and other member nations at the time. As the WTO is a consensus ruling body – all 164 member states must vote yes.
Now, more than 100 countries have publically expressed support for the move.
The negotiations hinge on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as the TRIPS Agreement. After the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1990s - when drug companies fought with health officials to produce generic treatments and only relinquished their argument when they were accused of profiting off the crisis - the WTO added the modern-day precedent for relaxing patent restrictions to TRIPS: the 2001 Doha Declaration.
Ananya Banerjee, an assistant professor at McGill University’s School of Population and Public Health, says the pharmaceutical companies behind the COVID-19 vaccines have had their “profits protected by a fortress of patents for decades.”
“What’s happening now is no different from what happened during the HIV and AIDS crisis,” she said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Friday. “I think it really comes back to capitalism…these patents are guaranteeing drug makers a stream of income.”
“Now is not the time to think of profits over people,” Banerjee said.
However, critics of the waiver argue that patents and intellectual property rights are not the central obstacle to producing more vaccines for countries that need them most, while others say that lifting the lid on vaccine patents could damper companies’ incentives to innovate during future pandemics.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of industry trade group BIO, said in a Wednesday statement that her organization was “extremely disappointed” with the Biden administrations decision to support waiving the intellectual property protections, calling it a “dangerous precedent.”
“Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards, and sizable workforce needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine. Handing them the blueprint to construct a kitchen that - in optimal conditions - can take a year to build will not help us stop the emergence of dangerous new COVID variants,” Mcmurry-Heath said, adding that the better alternative was to the make the U.S. a vaccine super power instead.
She went on to say that her organization has warned “on several occasions” that a TRIPS agreement waiver “has the potential to drastically hinder existing efforts to scale up global manufacturing, disrupt efforts to equitably distribute the vaccines to every corner of the globe through COVAX, and further strain the global supply chain.”
Moderna voluntarily waived its patent in October, with no reports of any country making use of it yet.
WHY ARE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS SO IMPORTANT?
Richard C. Owens, lawyer and senior Munk fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, says the world relies “enormously” on new pharmaceuticals for advances in health care.
“The way we as a society developed those pharmaceuticals is to have the private sector bring together unbelievable quantities of money and expertise and to take enormous risks trying to pick a needle in the haystack to find the drug that will work,” Owens said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Friday.
“That system doesn't work if the people who invest their time and expertise and care and money in building those drugs can’t recoup their investment because next time, nobody's going to invest. Why bother?”
Owens said the only way for companies to recoup their investment is through intellectual property protection, as drugs are “so easily copied” and once they’re on the market, others “can just start stealing the process.”
“We rely on patents to tell the people who give us their expertise and investment that, ‘Hey, you're going to have 20 years to recoup that investment at a time when only you can or the people you authorize can make or sell that particular drug,’” he said.
“So, you've got a guarantee of at least an opportunity to make money. The pharmaceutical industry isn't that profitable, but to the extent that it's profitable, it depends on intellectual property.”
WHY ARE VACCINE PATENTS SO COMPLICATED?
Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) agreed that intellectual property is “the motor of the modern economy,” and when it comes to vaccines, the stakes are very high.
“Vaccines are awfully high tech and they involve years and years of research at different levels and…investments by labs and pharmaceutical companies,” Medhora said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Thursday. “For example, the mRNA vaccines we have on the market have something like 260 or so different steps to actually get it from into the bottle and into your arm. It's a complex process and each of those steps does include proprietary knowledge.”
Vaccines often contain several ingredients that may be under their own separate patents from contributing manufacturers, meaning lifting vaccine patent waivers may not a simple process.
“One of the characteristics of the vaccine economy, particularly for COVID, has been a tremendous amount of energy that's gone into licencing patterns, often royalty free,” Owens said.
“Sharing of information is actually facilitated by knowing that you can control the information that you share…people don't need to rely on secrecy so much to make their products available safely. They can disclose and share information amongst researchers and amongst manufacturers knowing that it's somewhat protected [by patents].”
WHY IS CANADA DELAYING ITS DECISION?
Canada, which in the past has moved in lockstep with the U.S. over matters of trade and diplomacy, has not immediately followed Biden’s example to express support in looking at a WTO COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver agreement.
Owens believes it is the correct choice.
“Canada, by at least delaying, is doing the right thing, the more principled thing that the U.S. for some reason has decided not to do,” he said. “I wouldn't be at all surprised if we did follow along. It's a popular move. It's still a wrong one.”
Medhora, however, said he is “puzzled” by Canada’s hesitancy.
“Yes, there are technical issues to be sorted out, but we don't have a big pharma industry to protect,” he said. “I thought that Canada was holding back until it knew what the U.S. was doing because the U.S. is such a major partner for us. Well, now that issue's no longer the case. So what's holding us back?”
Medhora said “given the gravity of this problem,” the signal of having a historically open country like Canada come on board with the proposal is an important one.
Banerjee said that the WTO proposal could be an “opportunity” for Canada to help “ramp up production and [vaccine] access for lower to middle- income countries.”
“It's a win-win situation,” she said. “Given that Canada is well on track to vaccinate our entire population and we have secured an extremely high number of [vaccine] doses, I'm not sure it's a question that we should be struggling with right now.”
WHY HAS THERE BEEN PUSHBACK?
The proposal before the WTO has been met with considerable pushback from groups ranging from pharmaceutical companies to politicians from member states.
Medhora said the resistance to the vaccine patent waivers tend to fall into two broad categories.
“I’d say one is genuine concern amongst experts is a TRIP's waiver is not a silver bullet,” Medhora said. “If we waived it today, it's not as if vaccine production would ramp up next week or even next month or maybe even six months from now, because the constraints to vaccine availability are infrastructure and raw materials, transport, storage, all of these other things.”
“The first question to ask is, is intellectual property in the way of a vaccine availability for anybody? And the answer is no. Intellectual property firstly has in many respects been waived by the companies who are making the vaccines and many of them are also offering the vaccines at cost,” he said. “The problems with availability have a lot more to do with scale and production.”
Owens said the reason why intellectual property is “on the table” in this case is because “the enemy of intellectual property want to use this opportunity to try to change the system by which drugs are made, mostly for the benefit of people who can take the patents and then make money making the drugs rather than engaging with a system which is more constructive in the long run.”
Medhora said with that in mind, the proposal by South Africa and India first brought to the WTO last October to lift the patents could have been seen by some as “self serving.”
“These are two countries that have reasonably significant pharma industries themselves,” he said. “And I think the feeling was that these countries were promoting a global policy that would disproportionately benefit their budding pharma sector.”
Medhora said the second reason for pushback to the idea of the waivers centres around the precedent of intellectual property.
“Intellectual property is a right and true global practice, we effectively give holders of IP 20 years of exclusivity, of monopoly use of their technology because they've taken risks and invested in developing it so that they can reap rates of return to make up for their risk and high investment,” he explained.
“So, big pharma and big tech, more generally, is fighting this on the grounds that their business model of incentivizing risky investment is at stake, and some governments have bought into that, especially in countries where big pharma is present, like Europe and the U.S. Canada is not in that position.”
But while Banerjee and Medhora both acknowledged the sensitivities and difficulties surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers, both support the proposal.
“We always write in exceptions to everything, especially for exceptional circumstances,” Medhora said. “If this is not an exceptional circumstance…what would be?”
Owens does not.
“A really simple principle at the core of this is it's wrong to steal stuff, and if you make a habit of stealing stuff, people are going to stop producing it, unfortunately,” he said.
“When you start talking about intellectual property, it results in a set of rules which are admittedly commendably abstract and nuanced and very, very complicated. Not for bad reasons, but just because that's the way they have to be.”
With files from CTV News' Ottawa bureau producer SarahTurnbull