Is Biden’s vaccine patent waiver another empty promise?
Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced that it would support a patent waiver for the COVID-19 vaccine.
As early as he was running for the U.S. president, Biden publicly committed to letting "no patent stand in the way" of mass-producing COVID-19 vaccines. Now, his administration finally sounded out again, making it clear that it would not renege on its promise.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement on May 5 that the Biden administration supports the waiver of intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. She said the aim is to "get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible."
However, the move, called a "shock" by Nature, has caused huge controversy from many quarters.
U.S. private sector says 'NO'
First, American COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, such as Pfizer, immediately spoke out against it. In an open letter, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said the Biden administration's proposed patent waiver would "disrupt" the manufacture and "put the safety and security of all at risk."
Despite this altisonant argument, the economic benefits of protecting vaccine patents may be the most fundamental reason Pfizer opposes this proposal. A Guardian report in March found that, over the past 12 months, the share price of Moderna, one of the world's leading suppliers of COVID-19 vaccines, increased 372 percent. And the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine revenue is reportedly expected to hit $26 billion in 2021.
The Biden administration's proposed vaccine patent waiver will be a massive blow to these pharmaceutical companies. In fact, the market reacted almost instantaneously. Share prices of vaccine makers including Pfizer and Moderna plunged immediately after Katherine Tai's statement.
And more essentially, this scenario raises a crucial and long-term question: if patents are waived in this pandemic outbreak, should they be waived in all, if unfortunate, future outbreaks? And given the patent protection is the vital financial lifeline of almost all vaccine manufacturers, will any of them next time be still willing to take on impressive risk and cost to develop and produce a life-saving vaccine as they have done this time?
The whole 'patent' thing is complicated
Waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines is much harder to do than it is to say.
The patent issues involved are not as simple as one patent for each vaccine. Every stage of development and production involves numerous technologies, methods and techniques, which means countless holders of these patents and licenses.
A preliminary research paper recently published in Nature Biotechnology found that the production of mRNA vaccines involved numerous patents and licenses held by various companies, government departments and research institutions.
The Biden administration not only needs to negotiate with countless stakeholders to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents, but also has to be prepared to face the contradictions and disputes caused by countless interest involvement.
Doubts and debunks from other countries
As well as causing a stir in the United States, the Biden administration's proposal has been met with equally strong skepticism internationally. In the view of many EU leaders, the Biden administration is saying one thing and doing another.
"The priority today is not patents, that's not true," said French President Emmanuel Macron. "Of what we have produced, we have let 50 percent be exported. In the United States, in Great Britain, 100 percent of what was produced was consumed in the domestic market."
The mRNA vaccines from companies such as Pfizer require highly specialized and sophisticated techniques that are simply unavailable to most pharmaceutical companies in a majority of developing and less-developed countries. So at this stage, sharing more available vaccines with these countries is far more effective. However, under the Biden administration, just as French President Macron has said, the U.S. has done little in this regard.
In the face of a global pandemic, vaccines are understandably expected to be more widely and thoroughly public. But let's not forget that the COVID-19 vaccine is a scarce resource worldwide, mainly produced by private manufacturers, which means the problems are intricate and complex.
When politicians are campaigning, they are only visionaries, and the promise of the idealistic sweep will help them attract votes. But when a politician does govern and becomes that problem solver, the question of how to deliver on that promise should be at the heart of it all. Selflessness in words will not achieve his idealistic vision.
Whether it is to patent-free the COVID-19 vaccine or, more fundamentally, to help the world fight the pandemic, when, and how, will the Biden administration really take that very first step? The world will be watching.