Joe Biden’s vaccine revolution risks creating lingering ailments. The US president’s decision to support the removal of intellectual property protections on Covid-19 jabs is a logical move, but practical difficulties mean that he may not do much to help countries ravaged by the pandemic. The danger is that Big Pharma is less inclined to develop new treatments during the next crisis.
The US government had resisted a World Trade Organization proposal to force pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine patents during the pandemic. Biden’s move comes amid a dramatic rise in the number of Covid-19-related deaths in India and Brazil, two countries that have lagged behind their Western peers in access to vaccines. Her support gives the proposals a realistic picture: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quickly said Europe was ready to discuss them.
In theory, removing patent protection makes sense. This would reduce the cost of manufacturing vaccines for the poorest countries and make it easier for them to develop a wider range of remedies. Citizens of rich countries would also gain, as fewer infections would also limit the emergence of dangerous mutations.
However, practical challenges mean it’s unlikely to make a big difference. The biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of vaccines is not the existence of patents, but the shortage of raw materials and manufacturing capacity. Pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca have traveled the world forging partnerships with companies such as the Serum Institute of India and Siam Bioscience in Thailand. GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, which do not have approved treatments, are involved in the manufacture of drugs from other groups. Complex vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA remedy, require an expensive cold room, making replication difficult for non-specialist manufacturers.
Still, the move rocked shares of pharmaceutical companies, with shares of Moderna and Novavax falling 13%. One concern is that temporary emergency intervention opens the door to similar moves, for example on insulin or cancer drugs. It seems unlikely: it can be difficult to mobilize international support for such an initiative outside of a crisis.
But the bigger concern is that in the next pandemic, companies are less eager to develop new drugs and charge higher prices upfront to recoup their costs. This would be an unwanted side effect for relatively weak treatment.