By Ana Santos Rutschman and Julia Barnes-Weise
As the toll of COVID-19 continues to increase in many countries in the Global South, there has been a renewed push to address the problem of vaccine scarcity through a waiver of patent rights. Calls for waivers have been recurring throughout the pandemic, from formal proposals introduced in 2020 by some of the larger developing economies (India and South Africa), to op-eds in mainstream media, and editorials in scientific publications, such as Nature. This push gained momentum in early May 2021, just before the meeting of the World Trade Organization’s General Council.
Waiver proposals have attracted the support of prominent names in public health. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, endorsed patent waivers as a tool to address the current vaccine scarcity problem in an article titled Waive Covid Vaccine Patents to Put World on “War Footing.” Others — including, most recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci — have been critical of waiver proposals.
In this piece, we explain the mechanics of patent waivers and argue that waivers alone are the wrong policy tool in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We agree with supporters of the waivers in their ultimate goal — that of scaling up the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, and then distributing them according to more equitable models than the ones adopted thus far. However, we doubt that the particular types of goods at stake here can be easily replicated and produced in substantially larger quantities simply through a waiver of intellectual property rights.