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U.S. Backs Waiving International Patent Protections For COVID Vaccines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration says it wants vaccine-makers to share what they know. The administration says it supports what is called a waiver for intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines. The World Trade Organization protects patents like that, so the U.S. wants the WTO to make an exception. This is an effort to speed up vaccinations around the world, especially in devastated countries like India. Pharmaceutical companies are resisting, though, saying this isn't going to work as intended.

NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk about this. Good morning.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is the waiver supposed to work?

LUPKIN: So this is a proposed waiver of parts of a 1995 intellectual property agreement through the World Trade Organization. There are a few things in there, but the most important thing is that it would allow other countries to jump in on the vaccine patents, allowing them to start making vaccines on their own without waiting for companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to supply them. Here's James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit public interest group that supports the waiver.

JAMES LOVE: If you look at the sequence of things that have to happen to get scaling up manufacturing, the first, for a company, decision they have to make is, is it legal for me to do this thing? Am I going to go to jail? Am I going to be hit with a big infringement claim?

LUPKIN: So this waiver would allow countries to bypass the exclusive rights of the patents, maybe with a royalty payment of some kind. And other countries are really struggling. While about a third of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, in India, that number is only 2%. So overall, it would remove a barrier for them.

INSKEEP: Although James Love just talked about a sequence of things - was this the only barrier?

LUPKIN: No. Vaccines are made from living cells, so they're really complicated to make, much more complicated than generic drugs, for instance. So patent-sharing doesn't solve the issue of having factories with the right manufacturing capabilities, for instance. Companies also need trained workers, raw ingredients, equipment, supplies, know-how. In the United States, where companies had the patents because they belonged to them to begin with, they ran into some of these issues. I spoke with John Grabenstein, a former Merck executive who now works at the Immunization Action Coalition. Here's how he explained it to me.

JOHN GRABENSTEIN: We have a cookbook. It doesn't come out necessarily the way the originator wrote the recipe.

LUPKIN: So waiving patents won't be a magic wand, he says.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, you've said that handing over that recipe could be significant. And I'm trying to think this through. This would get vaccines into places that the pharmaceutical companies haven't sold them yet. They would get some kind of a royalty, possibly, you said. So why would pharmaceutical companies say no to this arrangement?

LUPKIN: Yeah, this is really basically the opposite of what they've hoped for. PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group, says the Biden administration's support for the waiver undermines the pandemic response. They say it will weaken already strained supply chains. There's also the overall argument that this could have repercussions for innovation. Remember, companies like Pfizer and Moderna researched and developed these vaccines in record time. It usually takes five to 10 years, and they did it in a few months. And for that effort, some say they should be able to hang on to their intellectual property, though, of course, the companies had help and money from the United States government and others. And we're in the middle of a global health crisis, and it's far from over.

INSKEEP: I think it's fair to ask why we're needing to have this debate at all, because wasn't there already a system for distributing vaccines to countries around the world?

LUPKIN: Yes. There is a consortium called COVAX that's trying to line up vaccine supply for low- and middle-income countries, but it hasn't really gotten that far. For example, Moderna said this week it would supply up to 500 million doses toward the effort. But the first doses, just 34 million, won't come until the fourth quarter of this year. So for context, that's not even going to cover 3% of India's population. So - and it won't arrive for four months. So it's clear that COVAX alone won't solve the global vaccine shortage, but the World Trade Organization's waiver may not solve it right away either.

INSKEEP: Sydney, thanks for the update.

LUPKIN: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.