Among the many controversies surrounding vital COVID-19 vaccines, the issue of patent bans gets far less attention than how vaccines are being distributed or who is able to receive them. Yet the patent laws protecting intellectual property (IP) in the U.S. and European Union give the world’s wealthiest countries unfair advantage over economically developing countries in accessing vaccines.
Production of coronavirus vaccines is concentrated in the hands of a small number of patent holders, who have monopolized production, based on profit-protecting IP rights. Countries with deep pockets — the U.S., Canada, Britain, Norway, as well as the EU, have purchased over 80% of the available supplies of vaccines from companies like Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
These same Big Pharma monopolies have used their patents to legally block production of vaccines by companies in other countries. Pfizer’s patent has blocked companies in India from developing alternative versions of its vaccine. And Pfizer sued SK Bioscience in South Korea, after the company developed a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, forcing it to close production.
AstraZeneca has vaccine manufacturing agreements with companies in India and Brazil, but they come with hefty price tags. Access to REGN-COV2, Regeneron’s COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatment, could reach many more people if licensing exclusions did not block transfers of scientific information.
In October 2020, South Africa, India and several other countries called on the World Trade Organization to suspend IP rights on COVID-19 vaccine patents. Citing the emergency situation created by the pandemic, they called for lifting IP protections that obstruct access to, and impact affordability of, lifesaving vaccines and other medicines.
There is no shortage of COVID-19 vaccine projects globally. According to the World Health Organization, out of 214 potential vaccines being developed in the world, 52 are in clinical trials; 13 are in advanced testing phases; and seven are approved for emergency or limited use. Lifting the patent bans would allow more companies to start production sooner.
Global call to suspend IP patents
Russia, India and China have developed effective COVID-19 vaccines that meet standards for emergency use, and they are distributing them to neighboring and economically developing countries. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been made available to Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Palestine and Hungary. The United Arab Emirates has received vaccines from Sinopharm in China and has approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Cuba has two effective vaccines — Soberana (Sovereign) 1 and 2 — which are close to completing trial phases. However, U.S. sanctions have made it difficult for the socialist country to get funding to expand production and global distribution. To counter this problem, Cuba is negotiating with Iran, another country suffering from U.S. sanctions, to produce the vaccine.
Production costs, including specialized equipment and cold storage, can run into billions of dollars. Companies may be reluctant to face the risk of costly investment in production, only to face legal challenges from Big Pharma over patent rights.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) launched a social media campaign to support the effort to lift patent bans in December 2020. Calling for governments to “put lives over profits” and warning against “pharma profiteering,” the call urged support for “#NoCovidMonopolies.”
Ignoring the devastating impact of the coronavirus, the pharmaceutical industry and the wealthiest countries oppose even temporarily lifting the patent ban. They claim this would stifle innovation. What they really mean is stifle profits.
Leonard Schleifer and George Yancopoulos, the billionaires who head the pharmaceutical giant Regeneron, have a combined wealth of $4 billion. Although they have a reputation for producing drugs at a breakneck pace, neither of them did the actual work to produce REGN-COV2, as they acknowledge in a company statement opposing lifting the IP patents.
Regeneron’s representative said: “Manufacturing antibody medicines is incredibly complex and transferring the technology takes many months, as well as significant resources and skill. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as putting a recipe on the internet and committing to not sue other companies during the pandemic.” (thelancet.com, Dec. 5, 2020)
The same article quotes Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor at the MSF Access Campaign, who stresses that putting the recipe online “would be a welcome first step.”
The monopolization of science
Patent laws in the U.S. and EU enforce a monopoly on production of goods and services. But in a global pandemic, they can lead to a chaotic and uneven production and distribution system of vital supplies like COVID-19 vaccines and medicines and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
The initial reasons given for designing patent laws were to encourage and protect individual inventors. But as capitalism developed, large corporate interests replaced individual creators as the beneficiaries. Most companies require their employees to sign over their innovative ideas to them. In this way, big corporations secure most of the resulting profits.
The concept of IP is simply the newest device for the accumulation of wealth and power and the oppression of the masses by corporate elites like the Regeneron CEOs. In the development of any vaccines, the actual work is done by researchers, technicians, chemists and lab assistants, with equipment produced by factory workers, in buildings maintained by custodial staff. And many more workers carry out production and distribution. Thousands of volunteers serve like guinea pigs to test the vaccines’ efficacy.
COVID-19 vaccines and medications are lifesaving necessities. The pharmaceutical corporations’ grip on their production and distribution proves that the intellectual property patent system does not work. It was not designed to deal with pandemics or many other vital human needs. The patent system that limits access to human necessities is an indictment of capitalism, which always puts profits before human needs.