Vaccines against Covid-19: five questions to understand the debate on the lifting of patents

It is a statement that gives weight to a recurring request since the start of the vaccination campaign against Covid-19. The United States announced, Wednesday, May 5, that it was in favor of the lifting of patents on anti-Covid vaccines. This position taken by a nation that has already vaccinated more than 32% of its population comes when poor countries are sorely lacking in doses.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”, said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, stressing the urgency of the situation. Franceinfo explains the consequences of this qualified advertisement “history” by the World Health Organization.

Why is this lifting of patents requested?

For the time being, patents on vaccines against Covid-19 are held by the laboratories that developed them. Lifting these patents would remove the legal barriers that would prevent other companies from producing these vaccines. For its supporters, this lifting of patents would make it possible to manufacture more doses at lower prices. “It’s common sense, estimated in March on France 2 Robin Guittard, spokesperson for the NGO Oxfam. We must allow these vaccines to be produced on a massive scale, much more than today, and it makes no sense to maintain exclusive control of a few large pharmaceutical companies over production. “

The World Health Organization is also one of the promoters of this idea. “Trade regulations provide for flexibilities in emergency situations, and there is no doubt that a global pandemic that has shut down many companies and caused so much damage to businesses – large and small – is one of them. “, declared its president, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the beginning of March.

The supporters of this idea finally believe that it is in the interest of the entire planet. The Economist Lucas Chancel explained in March on franceinfo that even if all of Europe were vaccinated, the risk of being contaminated by a new variant would continue. “So it is imperative that these vaccines arrive for the world population as a whole”, insisted the professor at Sciences Po.

Last but not least, the role of the public and therefore of the tax in the invention of these products, in particular those using messenger RNA such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. “VSVaccines were funded and discovered through public research – see report of the Global Health Center in Switzerland “, explained the biologist Samuel Alizon in April on Franceinfo, calling on international bodies to appropriate this question.

Which countries are in favor of this measure?

India and South Africa submitted to the World Trade Organization at the beginning of October 2020 a request for the temporary lifting of these restrictions. Without success, despite the support of dozens of developing countries and large NGOs such as Médecins sans frontières or Human Rights Watch. “Several reports indicate that intellectual property rights hamper or risk hampering the timely provision of affordable medical products to patients.”, wrote the two countries, which proposed to remove these obstacles until “that a widespread vaccination is in place globally and that the majority of the world’s population is immunized”.

They then received the support of New Zealand, as well as an array of Nobel laureates and former heads of state who wrote an open letter to Joe Biden in mid-April. Such a suspension is “a vital and necessary step to end the pandemic”, estimated the 170 or so signatories of this letter, including former French President François Hollande, former British head of government Gordon Brown and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

However, the American position could change the situation. With Pfizer and Moderna, they are the cradle of two of the anti-Covid vaccines and their political weight on the international scene is well established. Katherine Tai said on Wednesday that Washington was participating “actively” negotiations at the World Trade Organization to allow the lifting of these patents, while recognizing that negotiations at the WTO “will take time given the consensual nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues at stake”.

After the Biden administration’s statement, the European Union said “ready to discuss any proposal that would tackle the crisis effectively and pragmatically “. WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has herself made access to vaccines a priority for her organization. Three meetings devoted to the subject are likely to be held by the end of May, then on June 8 and 9.

What is France’s position?

Initially, France was opposed to this lifting of patents. Before the WHO, Emmanuel Macron had estimated, in April, about the transfer of the intellectual property of these vaccines, that “the subject, we know it today, is not that one”. “It is that of technology transfer, of the mobilization of production capacities. Because the bottleneck is there”, asserted the French president. Paris instead pleads for donations in favor of poor countries, via the Covax program, headed by the WHO and the NGO Gavi and supposed to ensure a more equitable distribution of vaccines in favor of poor countries.

Questioned on March 16 on this subject by the LFI deputy François Ruffin, the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, had declared before the National Assembly that “we do more than lift the ownership of a laboratory in terms of patent, we make sure that all companies capable of producing the vaccine in this country and on this continent produce the vaccine, including on behalf of laboratories that do not are not theirs “. He then cited the example of French Sanofi.

Thursday, May 6, the day after the American announcement, Emmanuel Macron changed his mind. “Europe is today the most generous continent in terms of doses. From day one, we have helped our partners and exported to the most fragile countries. I am in favor of lifting intellectual property. But today, what makes vaccination difficult is the transfer of technology and the capacity to produce “, declared the President of the Republic during his visit to the vaccinodrome of the Porte de Versailles, in Paris.

How is the pharmaceutical industry reacting?

Pharmaceutical companies are generally opposed to the lifting of patents on anti-Covid vaccines because this would deprive them, according to them, of a financial windfall for costly innovations. Solicited by AFP, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna did not directly react to the American announcement. But the International Federation of the Pharmaceutical Industry (IFPMA) has ruled “disappointing” this advert.

“We are fully aligned with the goal that anti-Covid 19 vaccines are quickly and equitably shared around the world. But as we keep saying, a suspension is the simple but false answer to a complex problem. “, she explained. Stephen Ubl, the president of the American Federation of the Pharmaceutical Industry (PhRMA), stressed that this decision could well “further weaken already strained supply chains and encourage the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines”. Rather, he said, we need to tackle the issue of distribution and availability. “limited” raw material.

As shown by this curve of the American chain CNBC, the action of the various pharmaceutical groups inventors of vaccines plunged on the stock market after the American announcement.

Are there any precedents?

At the end of the 1990s, antiretrovirals revolutionized treatment against the AIDS virus. Triple therapies have started to save thousands of lives. But their price was out of reach for the vast majority of HIV-positive people.

In 2003, a temporary agreement, confirmed at the end of 2005, made it possible to introduce an exemption from intellectual property rights. This allowed poor countries affected by serious infectious diseases to import generic drugs, if they could not manufacture them themselves.

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