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Debates in Development

Would Exempting COVID-19 Vaccines from Intellectual Property Rights Improve Global Access and Equity?

Moderated by CGD President Masood Ahmed

A new year starts off at CGD in part with a new “Debates in Development,” and we hope you’ll lend your views.

There’s nothing new of course about the decades-long debate over intellectual property rights and life-saving medicines. But as we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 global pandemic, with a handful of new vaccines already approved for emergency authorization and millions of people recently inoculated, it is becoming increasingly likely that the world may soon look quite lopsided in one distinct way – hundreds of millions of residents in wealthy nations will be vaccinated before billions of people in developing countries have similar access. A global advocacy campaign is currently seeking to exempt COVID-19 vaccines from IP protections, contending that this action would mobilize additional manufacturers and help address vaccine access disparities. Others argue that doing so could dissuade additional manufacturing investments and undermine long-run vaccine development, including to address emerging COVID-19 variants.

With COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. So Rachel Silverman kicks off this debate by asking, would exempting COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property rights improve global access and equity?

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In conclusion

Rachel Silverman is a CGD policy fellow, where she leads policy-oriented research on global health financing and incentive structures. Silverman’s work focuses on the practical application of results-based financing; global health transitions; innovation models for global health; alignment & impact in international funding for family planning; and more.

With thanks to our contributors and commentators, I think this debate has generated greater clarity and nuance—if not necessarily consensus—about whether IP poses a meaningful barrier to COVID-19 vaccine access. We largely agree that knowledge-sharing and tech transfer are the crux of the IP issue—not patents and legal strictures per se. Moderna, for example, has waived IP enforcement for COVID-19 vaccines but has not widely shared its know-how; without the latter, the former action has not generated any generic production.

We are left, in that case, with two broad areas of disagreement and/or uncertainty.

First, is an IP waiver important as a first step and/or symbolic gesture, even if it will have limited impact without broader knowledge sharing? Some have argued “yes”—that it provides legal clarity to protect generic manufacturers against retribution and signals a shared commitment to human life and health over company profits and wealthy-country interests. From my perspective, I continue to feel largely agnostic on this point. I recognize the symbolic value and I’m not opposed to the waiver per se¸ but given its relatively low impact I continue to think it’s an inefficient use of limited global advocacy/political capital for vaccine access.

Second, if originators were to freely share all know-how, would additional generic companies start manufacturing? We spent less time discussing this, so I don’t want to mischaracterize anyone’s views. I think we (mostly) agree that there are generic manufacturers with the capacity to produce at least some of the vaccines (Oxford/AZ, J&J, and Novavax) in the medium-term. But in the absence of public subsidy—and given considerable medium-term commercial risk vis-à-vis total demand and performance against emerging variants—I’m still unsure that they would actually invest up-front to repurpose manufacturing lines. Given that there’s already substantial competition between originators, my instinct is that we should continue to actively engage originators in scale-up, creating the right incentives for voluntary licensing and tech transfer.

Thanks to all for a constructive discussion—and let’s keep the conversation going!

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About the Experts

Rachel Silverman is a CGD policy fellow, where she leads policy-oriented research on global health financing and incentive structures. Silverman’s work focuses on the practical application of results-based financing; global health transitions; innovation models for global health; alignment & impact in international funding for family planning; and more.

Adrian Towse headshot

Adrian Towse is director emeritus and a senior research fellow at the Office of Health Economics. His research includes incentives for new drugs and vaccines, the use of risk-sharing arrangements between healthcare payers and pharmaceutical companies, and access to medicines in developing countries

James Love headshot
James Love is director of Knowledge Ecology International. His training is in economics and finance, and his work focuses on the production, management, and access to knowledge resources, as well as aspects of competition policy.
Photo of Prashant Yadav

Yadav’s work focuses on improving healthcare supply chains and designing better supply chains for products with social benefits. Over the last 15 years, Yadav has worked closely with country governments and global organizations in improving supply chains for medicines and health products.