Covid-19 and the Moral Argument Over Intellectual Property Rights

Joseph Dana

AFP photo: Punit Paranjpe

We’re at a crossroad in the fight against Covid-19. Despite the historic global vaccination effort underway, variants and mutations of the virus keep popping up. This has led to worries that the fight against the pandemic can’t move forward without an extra focus on less developed countries. In Africa, most countries haven’t yet secured enough vaccines to inoculate their populations, and often even to start. The burdensome regulations embedded in the intellectual property rights of vaccine manufacturers, which effectively act to keep vaccines from those in the developing world, must be addressed and possibly suspended to truly kickstart a global vaccine drive. Indeed, if ever there was a time to do something about the balance between economics and morality, it should be now, during possibly the worst outbreak of disease the world has known.

The US had an opportunity to pressure vaccine manufacturers to make them supply developing countries at lower costs. The government owns a crucial piece of intellectual property used in creating the so-called mRNA-type vaccines. But the Trump administration didn’t. Now, the Biden White House has signaled that it may do so. But will it and can it? The devil is in the details of contracts the US negotiated with drug companies.

What it can clearly do, however, is to give more pharmaceutical companies the right to use that same technology to create the next generation of vaccines that will surely be needed soon – people, even those already vaccinated, will require new-generation jabs, much like the flu shot must be refreshed every year.

It is no accident that Covid-19 vaccines have been mostly developed in the West, particularly the biotech-enabled versions. That is because they depend on a string of technologies jealously guarded by Western firms, or for which they demand high prices to license. The human-resource ability of non-Western firms, on the other hand, to conceive of and to create new drugs using these technologies is unquestioned. Scientific papers on the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 have been produced by 111 countries. Many of these papers are readily shared. But “science” and “technology,” though related, are not synonymous. The latter is ring-fenced by legality. Today, these might be deadly legalities.

Since vaccines began emerging in trials, it has been a case of every nation for itself in the West. Richer countries have engaged in an unseemly display of vaccine nationalism. The US is on track to receive 400 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by the end of May and then 600 million in total by the end of July, enough to vaccinate 300 million people. And yet, as the scholar and public intellectual, Zeynep Tufekci, notes, as of the end of March, 130 countries hadn’t yet administered a single dose of vaccine.

There is, thus, an imperative for non-Western drug manufacturers – beyond those in China and Russia – to develop, as well as to produce more, vaccines. But beyond the technologies behind vaccine development, there is also a string of intellectual property rights embedded in the manufacturing process. This also needs to be freed up so developing nations’ pharmaceutical companies can churn out more doses, instead of waiting for Western nations to decide when they can finally get access. Even the European Union, the self-described champion of the developing world, is engaged in an implicit claim of entitlement with echoes of the unsavoriness of imperialism.

Drug companies have traditionally argued that they pursue expensive research into a range of drugs. Most fail, and so those that succeed must essentially pay for the cost of the rest. The argument in this business model cannot be faulted. Certainly, that is the case with, say, microchips. But it has never made any moral sense in the case of drugs. A cellphone isn’t an existential necessity. You can insist on guarding your intellectual property rights for the chip that goes into one of those devices and no one dies. But if you insist on your IP rights and deny someone an anti-retroviral against AIDS, they will surely perish. It is morally not the same thing.

But Western drug companies, for decades, have been able to peddle the economic-right argument and win. In the face of a global health crisis, however, we must move the needle along the spectrum away from commerce and toward morality.

There have been, to be sure, bright spots. The Serum Institute of India was the first supplier of vaccines for South Africa. The doses it supplied was produced through a license provided by AstraZeneca on a non-profit basis. And a vaccine by China’s Sinopharm will be produced in a joint venture in the UAE with Abu Dhabi company G42 – an arrangement that in turn brings to mind the dearth of moral charity from most of the West’s pharmaceutical firms.

Emerging economies are looking to themselves for a solution. Or at least they want to. There is cooperation taking place among countries in the Global South, and this can be key to the creation of new vaccines and their rollout to less-developed countries. Empowering new alliances and vaccine solutions through the sharing of data and technology is our best bet in the next phase of this fight. But only if intellectual property rights are freed or at least licensed at affordable rates.

The Covid-19 pandemic must focus our attention on the moral imperative for the wider dissemination of intellectual property rights. If ever there was a need for a global convention on anything, it is now that one should be convened by the UN or its World Health Organization on how to share vital information and know-how that can keep people alive. Covid-19 isn’t going to be the last outbreak.

Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.