hakan-nural-Z2n-r7pg6kM-unsplashIt’s not often that intellectual property makes truly big news, but it’s not often the case that the fate of the world seems to hinge upon a vaccine. (Though to be fair, vaccines have shaped the course of history on those occasions when they have been introduced to curb disease or illness.)

As the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be improving here in the United States with the number of people vaccinated rising daily, attention turns to elsewhere in the world, where countries like Brazil and India are facing massive infection rates and death tolls related to the virus. Concern is twofold for those on the outside: there is the altruistic desire to end suffering where we can, and the justified concern that the continued spread of the virus will lead to mutation and variants that prolong the global pandemic further. Amidst these concerns comes the call for the Biden Administration to support efforts to waive the intellectual property rights of the vaccine manufacturers and fast-track the manufacture of the vaccine around the world.

While patent issues are a real concern and waiving those IP rights would be a good and necessary step, it’s not necessarily the case that patents or intellectual property more broadly is the sticking point that is preventing mass vaccination in nations around the world. In an excellent article for Foreign Affairs, Peter J. Hotez, Maria Elena Bottazzi, and Prashant Yadav highlight how global inequity exacerbates the problem of getting shots in arms in countries not considered the developed first world. Even if the patent rights were lifted tomorrow and countries around the world had access to the information to create the vaccines, many lack the capacity to create the vaccines themselves.

There are technical considerations to this particular issue as well: the mRNA vaccines required in the case of COVID are more complex and difficult to create than other medications or pharmaceuticals, and the questions of quality control and oversight need to be answered before simply letting other nations try their hand at replicating the vaccine. None of which is what any of us want to hear: we’d sooner look at the news and see manufacturers around the globe rolling out batches of vaccines to stem the tide of infection and get the world back to normal on a tight timeline. But it’s a stark reminder that intellectual property isn’t always the only thing preventing a better world with more access to the things we need.   

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