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Could relaxing patents help poorer countries get vaccines faster?

Jasmine Garsd Dec 15, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A medical worker administers the Pfizer BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a doctor at a hospital in Miami on Dec. 15. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
COVID-19

Could relaxing patents help poorer countries get vaccines faster?

Jasmine Garsd Dec 15, 2020
A medical worker administers the Pfizer BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a doctor at a hospital in Miami on Dec. 15. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

It’s the second day of Americans being vaccinated against COVID-19, and a second vaccine may be approved by the end of the week.

The world’s poorest countries, on the other hand, may not be able to get any vaccine at all until 2024, by one estimate.

To deliver vaccines to the world’s poor sooner that, some global health activists want to waive intellectual property protections on vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.

India, South Africa and Kenya have asked the World Trade Organization to allow pharmaceutical plants in the developing world to manufacture patented drugs without having to worry about lawsuits. 

Christopher Snyder, an economist at Dartmouth University, thinks that may not be the most effective route.  

“Vaccines are notoriously difficult to reverse engineer. So in that sense working around the patent is not going to be that helpful,” he said.

But for some countries, it might help.

“Many developing countries of course don’t have sophisticated manufacturing facilities, countries like India, countries like Brazil do,” said Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The United States, Britain and the European Union, have repeatedly rejected the proposal at the WTO. 

Julia Barnes-Weise, the executive director of the Global Healthcare Innovation Alliance Accelerator, said there’s an incentive for wealthier countries to make sure poorer ones get a vaccine.

“Nobody’s safe until everybody’s safe,” she said. “So as long as the virus is circulating everybody is still in danger because we live in such a connected world.”

There is precedent for relaxing intellectual property rules: In 2001, in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Doha Declaration gave low-income nations the right to import and produce generic versions of patented medicines.

Correction (Dec. 15, 2020): Julia Barnes-Weise’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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