Biden’s new-found support for a temporary waiver of COVID vaccine patents raises another fascinating set of questions. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus makes the case for a waiver in terms of overwhelming priorities and the inequitable distribution of doses to date — 80 percent to the richest countries. Economic pragmatists add that the faster the whole world is vaccinated, the sooner global trade, including demand for exports from the rich West, will also recover.
Opponents, led by Angela Merkel, argue that a waiver is an expropriation of intellectual property that would discourage future drug innovation without guaranteeing significant new ammunition for the battle against COVID, because most poorer countries do not have the capacity or know-how to manufacture high-quality vaccines. Industry voices add that a waiver could hand western biotech secrets to habitual IP abusers such as China and Russia. Meanwhile, some observers think Biden is merely grandstanding to win favor with left-wing Democrats, knowing that a waiver will take too long to achieve consensus within the World Trade Organization and may never happen at all.
What’s the answer? Any nation that’s well advanced in its vaccination program and has over-ordered should stop hoarding and start sending spare batches abroad. ‘Big Pharma’ should be incentivized to make more vaccine licensing agreements and joint ventures in faraway places — but also to maintain research spending at home, in order to stay ahead of the next pandemic. A patent waiver should be available only to countries where COVID is raging, IP is respected, and there’s capacity for immediate production. But how easy it is for your columnist to type these solutions; and how hellishly difficult it would be for real-life interested parties to agree on them.