In January 2020, we knew very little about COVID-19. Today, 10 vaccines are already available. This is a triumph of medical innovation and has only been made possible by the protection of intellectual property rights.
After the winter outbreak due to milder weather Variant “Omicron”, the epidemiological data of the last few months in Greece seem to allow a return to a “normality of coexistence” with viruses – as was the case before COVID-19[feminine] -. At the same time, health systems have the opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge gained from the pandemic and prepare for future similar situations, which are likely to be more frequent. In the field of vaccines, developments will be continuous and will dominate the public health agenda for the foreseeable future.
A related public policy debate that has come to the fore on vaccines is the issue of intellectual property rights, namely patents. Some Member States are calling for the reduction or even the elimination of intellectual property rights in the field of vaccine research. This is currently a debated issue in World Health Organization (WHO). The basic argument is that equitable access to such a precious good cannot be achieved for everyone – and especially for developing countries – unless vaccines can be produced locally, using know- make innovative vaccine manufacturers. I think this position is rather superficial and misleading. Such a decision would be counterproductive, as it would significantly reduce the incentives for innovation for research teams that continue to work towards finding new effective treatments, drugs and vaccines. There are currently 10 immediate-use COVID-19 vaccines and about 60 more who are in phase 3 or 4 clinical trials or awaiting regulatory review. Given that in January 2020 we knew very little COVID-19, the current situation can be considered a triumph of innovation. The speed of response and the availability of vaccines have been made possible precisely because of the protection of these rights; these rights even allowed competing companies to cooperate and develop vaccines, as they ensured that the disclosure and sharing of all related data was adequately protected.
The “recipe” for the vaccine is no secret, after all. On the contrary, their publication is required for the awarding of the corresponding certifications. Without patents, this knowledge would be limited to trade secrets and researchers who could not use this wealth of knowledge that is produced daily. If the vaccine research effort is not protected by patent titles, then indeed the incentives to R&D are negatively affected. It is this protection that has enabled the development of several new safe and effective vaccines in record time and the production of billions of doses, saving lives. The ability of the private sector to innovate, manufacture and distribute these products has led to life-saving treatments and vaccines in past epidemics and will certainly play a key role in future ones. Indeed, a rapid production of the vaccines required in the world is not easy. And yet it happened. On 12 billion doses had been prepared at the end of 2021, capable of covering the entire world population if we ensure equal access. These rights have enabled co-production agreements with companies around the world. And this exchange of know-how was possible because the cooperation had commercial characteristics and not external pressure for mandatory data sharing. It is not certain that the disclosure of critical information by simple external pressure is done effectively. Therefore, it is not patents that have caused the vaccine access problem, but regulatory loopholes and protectionist policies – such as export bans – that have been recorded during the global crisis.
And it is in this area that we find significant room for improvement: the harmonization of regulatory frameworks would vaccines be available more quickly. During the pandemic, the lack of this harmonization led to delays and different approval regimes in different countries. Local producers had to find ways to comply with different regulatory authorities depending on the country of destination.
This should be emphasized when dealing with future crises. Governments must reliably and efficiently commit to maintaining global supply chains for vaccines and treatments during pandemics. Instead of restricting property rights in pandemic situations, governments should focus on concrete steps to accelerate equitable access to vaccines and medicines by harmonizing regulations and removing trade barriers.