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COVID-19

Could relaxing patents help poorer countries get vaccines faster?

Jasmine Garsd Dec 15, 2020
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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
Heard on:
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

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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