The COVID-19 pandemic, economic disruption, war in Ukraine, world hunger and now monkeypox… With all these crises, one could say the future of humanity is looking bleak . That would probably be true if we didn’t have innovation and intellectual property rights.
It doesn’t take a degree in history to understand that, despite many challenges, the world is getting better. Treatment of HIV and AIDS has averted millions of premature deaths. Cancer survival rates have improved by almost 20% since 1986. COVID-19 vaccines, developed almost overnight, are already saving thousands of lives in Europe and beyond.
We have made significant progress in improving vaccine accessibility. AstraZeneca sells its vaccines to developing countries at cost, and many developed countries have donated their vaccines to those in need. While much more could be done to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines, patent waivers are not a solution we can afford.
Currently, member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are discussing a draft agreement on the flexibility of TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) to waive the protections of intellectual property. South Africa and India launched the TRIPS waiver in 2020. Despite initial resistance from the EU and US, compromise now seems in sight.
If passed, the deal would legalize compulsory licensing, a practice that allows the government to grant the right to produce COVID-19 vaccines without the consent of a patent holder. On paper, allowing the mass production of vaccines seems like a lofty goal, but the consequences of such a policy are anything but promising. The short-term result of the erosion of intellectual property rights would be increased access to innovations. In the long term, there would be no innovation.
While the current talks on the TRIPS waiver mainly concern COVID-19 vaccines, there are concerns that these flexibilities could become a norm or be misused once adopted. This was, for example, the case in Thailand, where compulsory licensing had been introduced to treat chronic non-infectious diseases.
The move did not end well for Thailand. Abbott, one of the manufacturers whose drugs were covered by the intellectual property waiver, withdrew all of its patents from Thailand. After a series of negotiations, Abbott agreed to increase access to its drugs in exchange for intellectual property protection. At the time, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson warned Thailand that compulsory licensing would hamper pharmaceutical innovation. Now it seems that the EU, especially the left, has forgotten this lesson.
“Although the TRIPS waiver seems like a quick fix, the consequences of such a decision will be disastrous”
Innovation requires time and effort, and above all, investment. Pharmaceutical development usually involves biological, chemical and clinical research and can take up to 15 years. Only a tiny fraction of these efforts lead to the creation of a breakthrough treatment. It is moral and right that these companies expect their risk-taking and investment to pay off through patents. By undermining intellectual property protection, the TRIPS waiver would remove these incentives and jeopardize drug safety. Without patents, third-party vendors will manufacture vaccine injections based on patented formulas and processes. Yet, without specialization, it will increase the risk of producing bad, inactive vaccines that will undermine vaccination in general.
Although the TRIPS waiver seems like a quick fix, the consequences of such a decision will be disastrous. We have too many challenges ahead and millions of people in Europe and beyond are still waiting for life-saving treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, diabetes or HIV/AIDS. If we remove patent protection now, all the progress we have made as a society and the countless opportunities to improve the world will be lost.