Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, insisted that it remain patent free. Asked who owned the patent 65 years ago, he replied, “The people I would say. There is no patent. You might as well ask, could you patent the sun?”
Making life-saving vaccines, medicines and equipment available, freely or affordably, has been crucial for containing the spread of many infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, polio and smallpox. Refusal to temporarily suspend several World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property (IP) provisions to enable much faster and broader progress in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in the deaths of many and some experts say should be grounds for a International Criminal Court prosecution. Enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRs) is relatively recent. The 1994 WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) greatly strengthened and extended IP transnationally. IPRs have effectively denied access to patented formulas and processes except to the highest bidders.
Vaccine developers expect to be very profitable, thanks to national and transnational IP laws. Thus, IP has distorted research priorities and discouraged cooperation and knowledge sharing, so essential to progress. Wealthier nations are falling out among themselves, fighting for access to vaccine supplies, as IP profits take precedence over lives and livelihoods. ‘Vaccine nationalism’ involves cut-throat contests responding to scarcity due to limited output. Vaccine nationalism has also meant that among the rich, the powerful come first. Consequently, most developing countries and most of their people will have to wait longer than necessary for vaccines, while the powerful and better off secure prior access, regardless of need or urgency.
The combination of IP and vaccine warfare is responsible for more avoidable losses of both lives and livelihoods. Developing nations, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, have been left far behind in most programmes for COVID-19 prevention, containment, treatment and vaccination.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General (DG) Tedros warns “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure…the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”. He explains that “the international community cannot allow a handful of companies to dictate the terms or the timeframe for ending the pandemic”; “vaccine nationalism combined with a restrictive approach to vaccine production is in fact more likely to prolong the pandemic … tantamount to medical malpractice on a global scale”