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Editorial: Say no to patent waivers on COVID vaccines

The Biden administration said it would agree to waive patent protection for COVID-19 drugs to speed global recovery from the pandemic. It sounds like a noble gesture, but the feel-good decision could cause more harm than good and should be reversed.

There are a number of major problems with waiving patent protection for these drugs and few real benefits.

The waiver could end up costing not the U.S. government but investors in companies that make not only vaccines but also other medicines used to treat the disease. And that, in turn, could slow development of new drugs. It would be a sorry repayment of the debt we all owe to companies that risked billions to develop the vaccines with unprecedented speed. Yes, the government preordered hundreds of millions of doses to reduce the financial risks, but it did not eliminate them.

The waiver would go well beyond the patents on the vaccines and cover patents on products and processes used by the major vaccine manufacturers. As the American Action Forum has observed, foreign manufacturers of generic drugs could use the waiver to bypass protection for many treatments also used to fight other diseases.

It’s important to note that COVID-19 vaccine patents are not the major obstacle to meeting the international need. The main problem, according to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, is manufacturing capacity. Knowing how to make effective doses of the vaccines requires highly specialized knowledge and equipment.

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One example tells the story. Last fall, Moderna announced that it would waive its patents on its COVID-19 vaccine. More than 6 months later, no generic drug manufacturer has come forward to take advantage of this generous move.

In addition to the complexities of making the vaccine, there is a worldwide shortage of the necessary raw materials. Waiving the patents of all the vaccine makers will not solve either significant obstacle.

Waiving American patents simply would make a good impression in much of the developing world without addressing the real problem. It would also put unwelcome pressure on a number of other nations with significant intellectual property rights in the COVID-19 vaccines, including Switzerland and such important allies as Britain, the European Union and Japan. The waiver decision does not appear to have been coordinated with these countries.

Experts say what’s really needed is a determined, government-funded effort by vaccine producers to make the manufacturing technology widely available online, backed by government spending to build vaccine manufacturing capacity and help solve problems in making the vaccines, and to purchase the necessary doses for distribution among the world’s poor.

That would be much more effective than waiving intellectual property rights. Mr. Biden should launch an international initiative to achieve these aims rather than taking away the intellectual property rights of companies.

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