Prince and Pope back vaccine patent waiver

Drug company fury: They claim they need huge profits to make investment worthwhile

Should vaccine patents be suspended? Yesterday Prince Harry and the Pope separately said it would dramatically boost supplies to poorer countries and backed Joe Biden’s proposal.

At vaccine centres across America, the queues are dwindling. The drive-throughs are empty, the volunteers are beginning to go home. So far, one in four people in high-income countries are vaccinated against Covid-19. The Western world feels safe at last.

But elsewhere, a different story is playing out. In poor countries, where just one in 500 have had the jab, vaccines are like gold dust. Thousands of people are still dying every day.

Now, the US has joined South Africa, India and 100 developing nations to support a radical plan to end vaccine inequality. Together, they are calling on the World Trade Organisation to overturn the patents on Covid-19 vaccines. “This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” declared US President Joe Biden.

“There is something morally objectionable about rich countries being able to get that vaccine, and yet billions of people in poor countries are unable to afford it,” agreed Senator Bernie Sanders.

So what are patents, and why do they exist?

Patents protect the rights of companies over products they have invented. When a patent is awarded to a pharmaceutical firm, this makes it illegal for other manufacturers to make cheap copycat versions of medicines for up to 20 years.

Pharmaceutical bosses insist patents are not about greed. Making a new drug is astronomically expensive. The average cost for just one drug is £935m - roughly equivalent to the entire yearly GDP of San Marino.

Moreover, 90% of new medicines are never actually approved by regulators - for drug firms, this means money poured down the drain.

Scientists point out that if every drug was immediately copied for free by competitors, companies would never make their money back. Eventually, they would stop investing in research, and new medicines would never be made.

“Those seeking to weaken patent protections could inadvertently harm the very patients they’re trying to help,” says American academic Jon Soderstrom.

Joe Biden’s decision has shocked many. The US - home to pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer - has long supported patent rules.

In the 1990s, when campaigners called for the removal of patents on HIV drugs, America stood firm. US officials refused to use aid money to buy cheap Indian copycat versions for African countries, despite the continent’s growing AIDS crisis.

So why has America changed its mind now? Activists say the Covid-19 vaccine is just too important to wait. When a Volvo engineer invented the three-point seat belt in 1959, the Swedish company chose to make their patent available immediately, saving thousands of lives.

But drug manufacturers point out that vaccines are not like seat belts, or even other medicines. Vaccines are hugely complicated. Releasing the patents would not suddenly enable developing countries to produce the jabs.

“You could get the recipe from Mary Berry for the loveliest cake you can imagine,” declared lobbyist Thomas Cueni. “But if you try to replicate that cake, good luck.”

Are patents on vaccines wrong?

Profits over people?

Of course, say some. It is outrageous that companies are allowed to limit the production of vaccines. Nobody is suggesting overturning all patents on all medicines. The Covid-19 crisis is a unique and time-sensitive scenario. Developing countries cannot wait 20 years to produce cheap vaccines. All pharmaceutical firms should help factories across the world make their vaccines and save lives now.

It is not so simple, say others. Drugs companies are not solely motivated by profit - AstraZeneca is producing their coronavirus vaccine at cost until July at the earliest. Firms rely on patents to recoup the enormous costs of producing vaccines and other medicines. If the WTO sets a new precedent now, scientists may not have the resources to develop vaccines in a future pandemic.

You Decide

  1. Do rich countries have a moral obligation to help provide vaccines in poorer countries?
  2. Should private businesses be responsible for producing medicines?

Activities

  1. In small groups, design your own new product and make a list of reasons why you believe it should be patented.
  2. Unusually, the first Covid-19 vaccine was made in just under a year. In pairs, use the expert links to create a timeline of the production of the Ebola vaccine Ervebo.

Some People Say...

“Health is a right, not a privilege.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (1965 – ), Ethiopian biologist and and Director-General of the World Health Organisation

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that it is in everyone’s best interests to vaccinate the entire global adult population from coronavirus as soon as possible. Whilst Covid-19 continues to spread, new variants will continue to emerge. If just one variant is vaccine resistant, every country could be at risk. In January, the head of the World Health Organisation warned that vaccinating healthy people in rich countries ahead of vulnerable people in poorer ones amounted to a “catastrophic moral failure”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether overturning the patents on Covid-19 vaccines would actually lead to an immediate increase in global supply. Currently, factories worldwide are facing a shortage of vital supplies, such as glass vials. In October, Moderna said that it would not prosecute companies that copy its vaccine - but so far, no one has. Philanthropist Bill Gates believes that to improve supply, rich countries should instead put funds into the COVAX vaccine distribution programme.

Word Watch

World Trade Organisation
Nobody is safe until everybody is safe in a pandemic, insists the WTO’s chief. But a number of European countries, including Germany, disagree with the plan.
Bernie Sanders
The Democratic Senator from Vermont has run twice for US President, in 2016 and in 2020.
GDP
Gross Domestic Product is the total monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a specific time period.
90%
Approximately nine out of ten drugs that start being tested in people eventually turn out to be unsafe or ineffective.
AIDS crisis
It would have cost sub-Saharan African countries between 9% and 67% of their GDP to provide vital antiretroviral drugs to everyone living with HIV.
Complicated
Two of the most common Covid-19 vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, use new, complex mRNA technology. Experts suggest that generic manufacturers would not be able to produce more vaccines until 2022.
Lobbyist
Someone who tries to influence laws or regulations. Cueni is the director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, a lobbying group for drugmakers.
At cost
Without profit. So far, AstraZeneca has foregone more than £14.5bn in revenue.

Subjects

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