Kenneth E. Thorpe

Kenneth E. Thorpe

Protect patients, patents

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By Kenneth E. Thorpe

A U.S. team in Geneva reportedly made a deal with dire consequences for patients everywhere.

They threw their support behind a proposal that would nullify intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines. Though ostensibly intended to make shots more accessible, the deal will do the exact opposite by discouraging the research investments.

Patients should hope the reports are incorrect — or that negotiators back out of the deal.

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Kenneth E. Thorpe

In October 2020, before shots were even approved by regulators, India and South Africa asked other World Trade Organization member nations to waive patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. This unprecedented assault on intellectual property rights was necessary to combat the pandemic, they said, since it would enable generic drug companies in developing countries to quickly manufacture and distribute knockoff vaccines to patients in need.

This claim is ridiculous. Vaccine developers inked hundreds of voluntary partnerships with other manufacturers — including many in the developing world — to rapidly scale up production.

Those companies collectively produced about 12 billion vaccines in the past year — enough to fully vaccinate every adult on the planet — and the world has the capacity to produce another 20 billion this year.

Far from a shortage of vaccines, there’s now a glut.

The CEO of the Serum Institute recently explained that he has 400 million vaccines in storage, and that his company has halted production until new orders come in. Likewise, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recently requested a pause on vaccine donations, saying he worries new donations will expire before they can be used.

Yet despite evidence showing patent protections aren’t hindering the supply of vaccines to developing countries, India and South Africa seem to have gotten what they wanted. The reported deal is a slightly slimmed-down version of their original request.

The deal’s timing is more than a little odd. India and South Africa have effectively sided with Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine — yet U.S. negotiators are now poised to reward both nations.

More importantly, the deal — if it’s approved by all 164 World Trade Organization member nations — will hamstring scientists’ ability to respond to new COVID-19 variants and future pandemics. Intellectual property protections enable companies to innovate, take risks on research and development projects, and respond to public health needs with confidence.

The Biden administration should reverse course. This IP waiver is could have dire consequences for scientific research.

Kenneth E. Thorpe is a professor of health policy at Emory University and an advisory board member of the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease.

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