Why Intellectual Property rights matter for COVID-19

This fundamental misunderstanding miscasts intellectual property rights as a roadblock. In reality, it’s the vehicle that speeds progress, providing the investment and cooperation needed to achieve ambitious goals. This is certainly true in this crisis.

Yet opponents of IP have called for the suspension of intellectual property rights at every stage in the effort to develop treatments to defeat COVID-19 – from early R&D, to bringing treatments to market, to ramping up manufacturing. This has culminated in proposals by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organisation to waive all IP rules for COVID-19 technologies.

The intellectual property system has continually confounded its critics in this crisis. It’s time for this divisive and counterproductive debate to come to an end.

Fears of COVID-19 and IP

As soon as the world began to realize the scale of the potential threat from COVID-19, certain academics and activists rolled out shopworn criticisms of intellectual property. While researchers and drug companies began work to develop the vaccines and therapeutics necessary to end the pandemic, scholars and health activists warned that intellectual property rights would thwart the effort.

Some asserted that intellectual property would inevitably hold up urgent research. They theorised that the “winner-takes-all” nature of intellectual property rights, especially patents, would prevent scientists from rapidly disclosing research results, and discourage the sharing of unpatentable insights that may potentially lead to patentable treatments with further work.

Members of Congress warned that IP would “put public health at risk”, while NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called for “no patents or profiteering” on yet to be developed health technologies. A coalition of over 500 NGOs claimed that IP rights were a “hindrance” to efforts to tackle the pandemic, calling for all COVID-19-related IP to be rescinded.

As events demonstrated, critics of IP were wrong by a wide margin. In January 2020 very little was known about COVID-19. By January 2021, three safe and highly efficacious vaccines had been authorised for use by stringent regulatory authorities, with several others poised to follow.

As of 21st December 2o20, there were 1052 COVID-19-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tools under development or approved globally, of which 219 are vaccines. This major achievement is a testament to how well the IP system has worked during the pandemic.

Calls to override intellectual property rights in the early stages of the pandemic were seductive and were backed by respected global humanitarian NGOs and prominent political figures. But it is to the credit of the majority of governments that they held their nerve and ignored such calls, despite the growing urgency of the situation over 2020.


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