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Prof talk | Vaccines for all

In an effort to solve the global shortage of Covid-19 vaccines, the US proposed to lift patent protection so that it will become cheaper and easier to produce vaccines. But things aren’t that simple, TU/e patent experts Rudi Bekkers and Paul Wiegmann warn. Professor of Precision Medicine Willem Mulder is clear about the issue as well: it’s about production capacity, not patents.

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Many countries are starting to make serious progress with their vaccination campaigns. But while Western governments have bought up massive supplies of Covid-19 vaccines – Canada, for example, ordered enough vaccines to inoculate its population four times over –, low-income countries are hardly able to administer a first dose. This is a source of concern. Because of the low vaccination rate in many countries, scientists fear that the coronavirus might mutate at such a rapid pace that the efficacy of current vaccines could drop dramatically. A global problem that requires a global response.

In an attempt to help low-income countries, the US recently voiced its support for a temporary waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines. The idea is that this would lead to more access to vaccines and increased production capacities. Rudi Bekkers, professor of Standardisation and Intellectual Property at TU/e, isn’t convinced however that waiving intellectual property protections is the best way to solve this global issue. “This is a complex problem. It’s a justifiable idea, naturally. The vaccines were developed partly with public money, pharmaceutical companies use knowledge acquired via scientific research and research grants. But a piece of patent text is not nearly enough to successfully solve the problem.”

Bekkers stresses that various Covid-19 vaccines have been put on the market, with different tariffs, and that there simply isn’t one party that holds monopoly on vaccine production. He and his fellow patent expert Paul Wiegmann (assistant professor of Innovation Technology Entrepreneurship and Marketing) believe that the causes of the stagnation of global vaccination rates are to be found elsewhere. Bekkers: “Patent holders already have a strong incentive to produce the highest number of vaccine doses. The demand is unlimited and the price they can insist on is attractive. When their own production capacity is limited, they can have other parties produce these vaccines for them. Commissioned or licensed, as long as these other parties can also produce on a large-scale and in a safe manner. But still, this doesn’t happen. This proves that there might be another problem.”

Wiegmann too says that a patent alone isn’t enough to scale up production capacity. “Knowledge and skill are very important, and this is something that needs to be developed in poorer countries as well. We as a society want to ensure safe vaccines, technical legislation and various standards for a high production standard. It’s important that we find a proper balance between quality and a fast commercialization – we’re in the middle of a pandemic after all.”

Certain drugs might be easy to make with the right formula and access to raw materials, but producing Covid-19 vaccines is a far more complex affair, TU/e professor of Precision Medicine Willem Mulder explains. He spoke out earlier against a call to lift patent protection for vaccines, in an opinion piece published in newspaper de Volkskrant. The production of mRNA vaccines in particular, which use a new technology to encode the viral spike protein with messenger mRNA encased in tiny fat globules, requires high-level expertise and logistics. “We’re talking about highly innovative biotech companies here, which managed to distribute several Covid-19 vaccines on a large scale and within a very short period of time, in collaboration with a few pharmaceutical companies. But we shouldn’t forget that they spent several years investing in the technology and trials to make this possible. Not everyone can simply copy this impressive achievement. That’s why instead of lifting patents, it would be better to invest in collaboration. Let’s help these companies set up production facilities on all continents so that there will be more vaccines across the board.”

Waiving patents to address global vaccine shortage might even prove counterproductive, Bekkers says in conclusion. “It could have a negative effect on the incentive to innovate. It’s about the balance between an optimal vaccine production at this moment – static efficiency – and the allocation of resources for future development over time, also known as dynamic efficiency. A waiver of vaccine patents could put the continued development of vaccines against new variants at risk because investments will be discontinued. We need to keep a critical eye on the balance between static and dynamic efficiency. The discussion about patents and the availability and price of drugs is very important as well. But we need to consider more options than patents alone if we want to provide the entire world with Covid-19 vaccines.” Or, as Mulder sums it up: “Don’t talk, but vaccinate.”

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