Deciding on the release of patents for vaccines against covid-19 is the issue that today occupies and confronts the great powers, the pharmaceutical companies and the poor countries. Having overcome the race for drug development and successively deploying a manufacturing, distribution and application process that without surprises reproduced the historical model of domination, a new debate has now been put on the table: that of intellectual property rights on drugs and if this should be above the collective right to immunization with a view to ending the pandemic.
The proposal is signed in four hands by South Africa and India, two peoples seriously affected by the spread of the virus, to the point of having achieved in their respective territories variants of the Sars-Cov-2 of greater lethality. Both, despite being countries of the South, have enough strength and voice among the international community to achieve representative accessions, the latter being the most unexpected: the United States, in the voice of President Joe Biden. The decision is in the hands of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a body that must reach consensus among member countries to issue a verdict.
What does patent release mean and why does it arouse so many sensitivities? What is each side arguing for in this discussion? Why could (or not) be a solution for access to the vaccine? Is there a background? Let's take a short tour.
about patents. The patent registry is the exact place where the divine of science and the mundane of law meet. In principle, it has a double purpose: to protect the intellectual property of the person or entity that devised the invention, but also to guarantee the socialization of knowledge in the medium or long term.
This is how the patent registration first grants exclusive use and commercialization rights for a certain time (this period depends on the type of invention, and the legislation of each country or international) to whoever does the registration so that they can benefit from their innovation. , and then establishes the release for free and collective use, so that humanity can then benefit in the second instance and permanently from the advancement.
The first patents were granted in ancient Greece to chefs who prepared exclusive dishes, and later they are located in Florence in the XNUMXth century and are related to innovations applied to trading ships. In the latter case, as is the case today, the legislation established a time for exclusive use and then the socialization of the invention. During the restrictive period, the patent owner was allowed to burn the boat using his invention without permission.
In the West, the first patent offices are located between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the 1842th century. In Venezuela, for example, the first Patent Registration Law (Law on Invention Patents) was enacted under the presidency of General José Antonio Páez, on April XNUMX, XNUMX.
Patents are a fundamental tool for the protection of intellectual property, but they arouse irrepressible passions due to the economic gains that are behind them. With regard to the pharmaceutical industry, they become a whip to exercise power, because naturally whoever has the most capabilities and possibilities to invent, will be able to do so, and consequently will have power over sales and distribution, whatever the case, constituting de facto monopolies in a sensitive area such as health.
Unless, as now, an emergency measure is promoted that responds to an emergency situation.
AIDS as a great antecedent
The great pandemic of the XNUMXth century, AIDS, bequeathed and continues to leave great teachings to humanity. One of them is how patent releases can help put limits on an out-of-control disease.
While it is true that there is still no vaccine for this disease, various drugs have been developed to treat it. One of them, the most widely used, is the antiretroviral cocktail that reduces the viral load of sick people, guaranteeing quality of life and extending survival.
Antiretrovirals hit the market a decade and a half after the start of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, which broke out in 1983. In the late 90s, when the distribution of these drugs began, only wealthy people in rich countries - where they did not live most people infected - could access them, since they cost approximately $ 10-15.000 a year per patient.
Meanwhile, Africa, for example, was living a nightmare. In South Africa, annual deaths were on the rise between 1990 and 2006, when the peak of 290.000 deaths from the virus was reached according to UN AIDS data.
With these data in hand, the WTO decided in 2001 with the Doha Declaration to order the lifting of patents on antiretroviral drugs so that, having the prescription, the countries that needed could produce and distribute them in their population, thus seeking to abate mortality.
And that's exactly what happened. The price of antiretrovirals fell by an astonishing 99% and access could have been massive, and with greater access, more lives saved. That declaration marked a milestone in the control of the AIDS pandemic, which, while still claiming lives, no longer registers the appalling numbers of its first two decades.
In 2000, a year before the patent was released, there were some 24 million people living with the disease and 1,4 million deaths were recorded. By then only 590.000 infected had access to antiretrovirals. Twenty years later, the number of infections rose to 38 million, but deaths fell to 690.000, largely thanks to more than 26 million people gaining access to the cocktail.
Today, those who promote the release of patents for the vaccine against covid-19 appeal to the Doha Declaration and this eloquent precedent.
What about the covid vaccine?
Pharmaceutical companies are the first to oppose the cancellation of patents at this juncture with technocratic arguments that expose purely economic interests. They argue that it is not a viable solution neither for the end of the pandemic nor for the end of inequality and point out that poor countries will not do anything with a recipe if they do not have the ingredients or the technological infrastructure to carry it out.
Also, in a statement that drips with pride on all sides and that sounds like blackmail, they allege that the release of patents will discourage innovation, especially with a view to an upcoming pandemic. In other words, these companies, in the event of a new health emergency, would not lift a finger to obtain a cure since they already know that they could not generate profits.
Stephen J Ubl, CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, responded to Biden's statements regarding the exception as "an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety."
"This decision will sow confusion among public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and encourage the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines." He said the move would have the effect of "delivering American innovations to countries seeking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discoveries."
On the other side of the Atlantic, although the European Union as a bloc has been open to the possibility, "as long as there are concrete proposals," said Charles Michel, president of the European Council, Germany, in the voice of Angela Merkel, gave her vote negative, insisting that this will undermine innovation.
And that's when Biden unexpectedly appears supporting the proposal. The statement was made by Katherine Tai, United States Trade Representative, who released a statement last Wednesday, issued by the White House.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The government strongly believes in intellectual property protections, but supports the waiver of those protections for covid-19 vaccines in service of ending this pandemic. "
The United States is one of the most advanced countries to date in terms of vaccination statistics. This is in large part because it got hold of far more vaccines than it needs, and has refused to share its stock with the world. For this reason, there are those who read this position of Biden as an effort that in reality only reaffirms that they will not share their supplies but invites whoever wants to have them to make them themselves, if they can.
On the other hand, if it is about world powers, Russia also gave its approval to the release of patents. "Of course, Russia would support that approach, taking into account that in the current situation we should not think about how to obtain maximum benefits, but about how to protect the safety of people," said Vladimir Putin himself, who also stressed that his country It is already working in this line, transferring technology to other countries so that they can start the production of the drugs developed in the Eurasian giant.
Releasing patents could guarantee a boost in global vaccination and therefore bring the end of the health emergency closer, but it would also mean coming into direct conflict with the great power of pharmaceutical companies, a price that many countries are not willing to pay. Also a technological and scientific challenge for developing nations.
But if, due to the coronavirus, discoveries have been made in record time and emergency authorizations have been made to implement little-proven vaccines, why is it unreasonable to think of a new emergency measure that returns the world to its normal course? The answer is in the hands of the WTO plenary.
The curious case of Moderna
The only private pharmaceutical company that has come out in favor of the release of patents has been Moderna, the smallest of the vaccine development companies, which also managed to find one of the most effective sera, with a success rate of 92% according to The OMS.
Moderna expressed its willingness to share its patent, even before the emergency measure was requested at the WTO.
“Last October we declared that we would not voluntarily enforce any of our patents during the pandemic from anyone making a vaccine. Period ”, said in an interview with the BBC the co-founder of the company, Noubar Afeyan.
“Moderna is the only company that has declared it publicly. And we did that in October. So when they asked for the use of the patent to be allowed, we were certainly already in that position and invited everyone else to join the same initiative. We cannot imagine companies enforcing their patents during a pandemic, "he said.
Moderna's vaccine, a pioneer in the development of the novel messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used in several of the drugs against Sars-cov-2, was the second vaccine to be approved for use in the United States after the from Pfizer-Biontech and is currently also applied in Europe and other countries through the Covax system.