Vaccines, patents and supply
by Dr Fintan Walton, CEO, PharmaVentures.
In my experience, quick fix solutions to complex issues are usually founded on a total misunderstanding of the problem causing the issue at hand, and if implemented result in, at best, no solution at all and, at worst, result in long-term damage. Such is the case with the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO’s) proposed solution to the vaccine roll out and distribution world-wide. Their solution is a proposed temporary waiver on the holders of patent rights to COVID-19 vaccine patents on the basis that such a waiver would result in an immediate speeding up of the vaccine roll out.
There are two fundamental problems with their proposal:
First, the problem is one of global manufacturing capabilities, not patent rights. There is quite simply a shortage of biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities and skills worldwide. We know that because, for the past 20 years, PharmaVentures has been helping companies sell and find such manufacturing facilities; there are simply very few around, largely due to the significant rise in the demand for biopharmaceutical products. So, to simply build new ones, owned and run by those lacking the skills, would take many years and therefore would not be the immediate short-term solution to vaccine production and roll out. Even if these manufacturing facilities were abundant, and there was a patent waiver, or a non-exclusive royalty-free license given to third parties, the skills and know-how to manufacture these new vaccines are simply not easily transferable in the short-term. Even those who possess all the patent rights and have all the necessary skills and know-how to manufacture are struggling to manufacture optimally against demand. The best solution, in my opinion, would be for governments of all nations, maybe through COVAX, to provide financial support to existing manufacturers to improve, optimise and expand their manufacturing facilities in return for their vaccines to be supplied at lower cost. Furthermore, those countries that have a demand for vaccine, and are seeking a higher supply of vaccine, should focus on the complex logistics of the vaccine roll out so that every village and hamlet in their country is vaccinated rapidly.
Second, waiving patent rights interferes with the most important driver for innovation in medicine. Readers of Termsheet already know that patents provide confidence for investors that their risk in investing in new technologies will be rewarded through short-term market exclusivity. To put future uncertainty on the strength of patents through future government interference would undermine that confidence and weaken our ability to find future therapies for debilitating diseases.