March 25, 2023

In order to achieve global herd immunity and prevent new strains of COVID-19 from emerging, vaccines need to be affordable and available in huge quantities all over the world. India and the world need multiple pharmaceutical companies to gain the right to produce these vaccines.

The patent rights are a major roadblock in mass production of covid-19 vaccines and thus will prolong the battle against this epidemic. This will directly harm the most vulnerable populations of low income countries, both health-wise and economically.

  • India and South Africa have sought a waiver of multiple IP rights on Covid-related innovations, instead of issuing compulsory licenses for patents on these vaccines.
Why patent rights should be waived?
  • Research for vaccines was public-funded-The billions of dollars in government aid given to companies to help develop COVID-19 treatments should entail an obligation to enable the mass production of affordable vaccines.
  • Patents are not absolute ownership rights. Even ’voluntary and compulsory licensing’ clauses are inherent part of WTO.

Thus patents are a temporary contract that balances the public interest with the claims of the innovator.

  • Ensuring life-saving therapies are available to the world’s poor is a basic Human Right.
  • It is a necessary step to prevent deadlier, more contagious and possibly vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 from proliferating in an under-vaccinated world.
  • Non utilization of WHO’s Patent-sharing pool for COVID products: The United Nations’ Medicines Patent Pool and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool are important tools in an effort to promote voluntary licensing for COVID products that so far have been ignored by pharmaceutical producers.
    • That is why India and South Africa called on the WTO to temporarily waive patent protections for COVID-19.
  • COVAX is currently underfunded: According to WHO, people in the lowest-income countries might have to wait until 2022 to get vaccinated through this program.
How fight against Aids was won using voluntary licensing?
  • In the 1990s, the WTO began implementing a global intellectual property regime known as the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, or TRIPS.
  • While TRIPS alarmed public health experts because of its potential to raise the price of essential medicines, voluntary licensing agreements between pharmaceutical producers were able to bring down the price of AIDS medications despite the TRIPS regulations.
  • Some manufacturers placed licensing agreements to produce AIDS drugs for which they owned patent rights in the UN-affiliated Medicines Patent Pool.
  • Royalty: Their licences required the licensee to pay the patent  holder a royalty on the sales of the drug and limit sales to low-income countries.
Why smaller pharmaceutical companies prefer voluntary licensing?
  • Lowering of prices: Voluntary licensing agreements between pharmaceutical producers were able to bring down the price of AIDS medications despite the TRIPS regulations.
    • For example, tenofovir, a first-line treatment for HIV/AIDS, has come down in price from $200-$500 per person per year to $39 per person per year in low-income countries.
    • 13 India-based pharmaceutical companies are producing it.
  • Hand holding for technology transfer: Voluntary licences also enable production to begin more expeditiously as they usually are accompanied by “technology transfer” meaning that the patent holder reveals to the licensee how to manufacture the medication, sparing the licensee the lengthy and costly process of figuring out how to reverse engineer the product.
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