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Forget the Vaccine Patent Waiver

While momentum builds behind a proposal to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, removing intellectual property protection would not accelerate the global immunization effort. The sooner the world recognizes that production capacity is not the problem, the better.

NEW HAVEN – The surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths in India shows that the pandemic is far from over. While most developing countries in Asia and Africa managed to keep their death tolls low over the past year, it is only a matter of time before the new, more contagious variants that have emerged in India and elsewhere spread to countries that seemed to have their infections under control. Absent a miracle – such as a mutation that renders the virus less lethal – only universal vaccination can end this cycle of misery.

With that goal in mind, a global movement has emerged to demand a World Trade Organization waiver of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines (as well as treatments and diagnostics). But patent protections are not the primary cause of the vaccine-supply bottleneck. If anything, a waiver might divert scarce materials from vaccine production facilities that are already up and running, not to mention discourage investments in pharmaceuticals to ward off future pandemics.

Intellectual-property protection for pharmaceuticals has a long, uncomfortable history, especially in developing countries. When the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was signed in 1995, an overwhelming majority of economists – including those strongly in favor of free trade – condemned it. They objected to an agreement that obliges all WTO member states to recognize and enforce patents in all fields of technology, including pharmaceuticals. While the case for general patent protection has a strong foundation in economic principles, there is no rationale for harmonizing patent protection across rich and poor countries.

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