Balancing intellectual property rights concerning the COVID 19 vaccine while serving the public good is the dilemma facing our global population today.  Failure to strike a balance creates a conflict between those living in developing countries and those in high-income nations. 

In response to the current vaccine access problem, South Africa and India have presented a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 medical products during the pandemic. While Europeans and North Americans account for over 50% of the administered vaccination population, poorer countries have only been able to vaccinate approximately 1% of their populations.

Proponents believe that temporarily waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines will help  ramp up production. Those countries opposing this concept argue that this would not result in increased production.

Why will an IP rights waiver not increase COVID vaccine production? 

What is involved Patents provide creators of new inventions, including innovative vaccines and medicines, with a limited-term monopoly.  Specifically, patents provide inventors a 20-year window, during which time other companies cannot reproduce the product.  The patent provides an incentive to invent and help recover the costs of research and development.  

It is no secret that vaccines generate enormous revenues.  According to Fierce Pharma, the COVID-19 vaccines should produce $18 billion per quarter for the drug companies.  In the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and was a recipient of the 1954 Nobel Peace Prize as a result.  How much money did Dr. Salk generate from his patent?  When being interviewed, he was asked who owns the patent.  Salk’s reply was, “…the people.  There is no patent.  Can you patent the sun?” He wanted the vaccine readily available to the public, which battled the disease that paralyzed over 35,000 children each year in the early 1950s.

Is this a legal or moral dilemma?

Balancing intellectual property rights is complex. Waiving patent rights during COVID is being addressed on an international level and raises both legal and ethical questions. With questions as complex as the public health questions created by COVID, it is not likely we will see an easy answer soon.

In today’s global marketplace, every product has potential global intellectual property issues. Ference & Associates has been managing complex patent and trademark portfolios in over 100 countries for decades.