The Right Incentives for Global Vaccine Access
A temporary intellectual-property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines will not boost access, because the main obstacle isn't patents, but trade secrets. With political will, however, the threat of an IP waiver can help shift vaccine producers' incentives and catalyze mass production for low- and middle-income countries.
IRVINE, CALIFORNIA – The COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal shocking underlying infrastructural inequalities around the world. While the United States rapidly rolls out vaccines even to children, countries like India suffer devastating numbers of fatalities each day. India recently reported more than 340,000 daily coronavirus cases – nearly half the global total – and the country seemingly has no end to its crisis in sight.
In response to intensifying political pressure to reduce low-income countries’ suffering, US President Joe Biden’s administration now supports a waiver of intellectual-property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines so long as the pandemic lasts. This development has elicited two competing responses. Some commentators regard the new US stance as a paradigm shift in the US position that will affect IP protection. But others predict that Biden’s new stance will have no impact on vaccine access.
Both positions fail to capture the bigger picture. First, IP protection will continue, including for COVID-19 vaccines in wealthy countries where pharmaceutical firms reap enormous profits. Second, with political will, the threat of a waiver can help shift patent-holding companies’ incentives and catalyze mass production of COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. The argument that Biden’s policy is destined to, or should, fail is thus unhelpful to US diplomacy and global cooperation during the pandemic.