COVID-19 Patent Waivers Are Not A Silver Bullet : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money The US just backed calls by South Africa and India to waive intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines, but that may not be enough to ramp up vaccine production.
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The Great Vaccine Patent-Off

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The Great Vaccine Patent-Off

The Great Vaccine Patent-Off

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

And I'm Darian Woods. So there's this huge battle going on around the world. It's around COVID vaccine intellectual property. And the idea is maybe we should just get rid of all intellectual property protections like patents.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And maybe this would help to address some of the shortages that people are experiencing in India and South Africa. Getting rid of patents would just help get vaccines out faster, help more people start to make vaccines.

WOODS: But there's another group of people who are kind of saying this whole debate is kind of beside the point. Like, a patent - it's just a legal document saying, I own this thing. This is a description of what the vaccine is. It doesn't have all the how-to in there.

VANEK SMITH: It would be like giving somebody a recipe with all the ingredients listed out but none of the instructions on how to make it. Like, making a vaccine is a little bit like baking a cake.

ADRIAN HILL: It's not like baking a cake.

WOODS: OK, Mr. Oxford vaccinologist.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Semantics, semantics.

WOODS: It's a little bit like baking a cake but without the full recipe, which is what we're going to do, Stacey, after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: To really understand whether removing intellectual property rights might help in vaccinating the world against COVID, we talked to economist Petra Moser about vaccine patents.

PETRA MOSER: The patent document is not a cookbook.

VANEK SMITH: Petra is a professor at NYU.

MOSER: The patent document is a legal contract that gives you the right to exclude others. And as the patent owner, you want to disclose as little as possible.

VANEK SMITH: And Petra says even if you do disclose all the information, there will still be a problem.

MOSER: So if I explain to you here, I'm making this great chocolate cake, and I write it down for you, you're probably not going to be able to replicate it. That's a chocolate cake, right? That's not very...

WOODS: Yeah.

MOSER: That's not that hard.

WOODS: That's not a world-leading vaccine. And I'm probably still not going to be as good as you, even if you write pretty full instructions.

MOSER: That's exactly right.

WOODS: OK, Stacey. Let's do this. We're going to show what it would be like to have kind of an amateur like me take on your cake patent.

VANEK SMITH: And the cake patent in this case is one of my very favorite gluten-free chocolate cake recipes, which I have given you, and you're going to try to make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: I've got the confectioner's sugar, gluten-free flour, a lot of chocolate.

VANEK SMITH: But, you know, Darian, all the ingredients that are supposed to be in the cake, I included. I did not omit any ingredients. I did omit some details, but, like...

WOODS: OK, so this is kind of like a patent. It's...

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

WOODS: It's got the component part of this invention...

VANEK SMITH: Mmm hmm.

WOODS: ...But the bare legal minimum that you can get away with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: I've got the chocolate, and I'm going to melt it in a pot because you haven't really told me how to melt the chocolate.

VANEK SMITH: OK.

WOODS: And, Stacey, this mixture is - it smells nice, but it's a little lumpy.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

WOODS: I'm trying my best.

VANEK SMITH: I know this is all in the name of science, Darian.

WOODS: This is a scientific experiment. If I can make a delicious cake with your half-written recipe...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

WOODS: ...And my amateur skills, then maybe IP waivers have a chance.

VANEK SMITH: What happens if you fail? (Laughter).

WOODS: If I fail, then ramping up vaccine production might be a little bit more complicated than just getting rid of intellectual property protection.

VANEK SMITH: I think (laughter) the stakes of this cake might be a little high.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAN CLATTERING)

WOODS: Putting it in the oven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, while we wait for your data point of one to bake in the oven, Darian, we can learn from Petra Moser, who analyzed millions of old patent documents to show what happened another time there was a huge removal of intellectual property rights.

WOODS: In World War One, the U.S. government passed a law called the Trading with the Enemy Act. And this meant thousands of patents for things like pharmaceuticals, engines and dyes were taken from German companies and just given to American businesses, kind of like a patent waiver.

MOSER: One of my favorite examples is DuPont, which had a lot of money, had very, very capable chemists, and they got access to the patent for indigo.

WOODS: As in the color blue.

MOSER: Blue, which then, when they tried to make it, turned out green.

WOODS: Oh, that's not indigo.

MOSER: No, that's not indigo.

VANEK SMITH: Petra says even established companies like DuPont, the U.S. chemical company - they would take, on average, five to six years to really learn how to make something like this.

MOSER: And so a vaccine is a little bit more serious.

WOODS: Yeah.

MOSER: So the learning is going to be so costly.

HILL: It's not like baking a cake.

WOODS: This is Adrian Hill, a vaccinologist and director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford.

WOODS: Let's put it this way. If it were a cake, you'd do 42 tests on the cake at the end of baking it to ensure that your cake was baked exactly the same way as everyone else's cake.

VANEK SMITH: Hearing how Adrian partnered with other organizations while working on a COVID vaccine can give you a sense of just how hard this is. Early in 2020, he and his team at Oxford developed a promising vaccine with the drug company AstraZeneca. Around that time, they realized they needed a manufacturing partner who could produce this on a huge scale - hundreds of millions of doses. So in mid-March, Adrian met with a vaccine manufacturing company called the Serum Institute of India.

HILL: They came to us and said, look; tell us more about what you're doing. They realized this might be something they could look at and manufacture.

WOODS: The Serum Institute of India was the perfect partner for Oxford. They're actually the biggest vaccine manufacturer in the world. So they licensed this Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the Serum Institute. And licensing here means the Serum Institute could use the recipe for the vaccine and make and sell their own brand of it.

VANEK SMITH: But they had to teach the Serum Institute of India how to make it, so they actually couriered over to India the components of the vaccine in this small vial. Adrian's colleagues down in the lab would work together with the Serum Institute over Zoom, showing them how the Oxford team was putting this vaccine together.

WOODS: A vaccine is just this incredibly fragile and particular process. There's a lot that can go wrong, and it wasn't just the Oxford team teaching the Serum Institute.

HILL: They didn't just make the cake. They took it to a vastly greater scale, and they've carried on producing more vaccine than anybody else.

VANEK SMITH: The Serum Institute now runs its factories close to 20 hours a day, and this is where the debate on vaccine patents comes in.

HILL: It's pointless having no patents if you have insufficient manufacturing capacity. Training, training, training - that's what we need for the next year.

WOODS: And to be clear, advocates for removing patents are arguing for a kind of like a yes-and approach. A lot of them are also asking for funding to increase manufacturing capacity, funding to boost training and equipment and ingredients.

VANEK SMITH: But Adrian says a vaccine patent free-for-all with all kinds of new companies trying out vaccines and making them for the first time - that could actually make the vaccine shortage worse.

HILL: We're running out of all the key components, and there's a scramble for them. So if you get rid of the patents and lots of people set up shop independently and start buying those components, hoping they can make the vaccine, that's going to make another problem much worse, which is access to the ingredients.

WOODS: For the next pandemic, he says, governments need to fund vaccine factories that, in between pandemics, might be sitting idle.

HILL: It's an investment you have to make in the same way that people invest in other types of defense. We need to lose some money on it. Otherwise, we're not doing it right.

VANEK SMITH: Darian, it's a little bit like giving you a gluten-free cake recipe without teaching you the fundamentals of baking - a little.

WOODS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Speaking of which, we need to check back in on your cake. How did it turn out?

WOODS: Do you believe in me, Stacey?

VANEK SMITH: I absolutely believe in you.

WOODS: All right, I'm going to open the oven.

VANEK SMITH: OK.

WOODS: Oh, my gosh, I can't even pick it up without it crumbling (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: OK.

WOODS: But I'll taste it. The proof is in the tasting.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

WOODS: Crumbly and dry on the outside, liquidy (ph) and uncooked on the inside (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Oh. (Laughter) I'm sorry, Darian.

WOODS: You can't even pick it up. It just, like, crumbles.

VANEK SMITH: It's like sand.

WOODS: Yeah, a sandcastle of a cake.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it looks pretty good.

WOODS: I'm still going to eat it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard with help from Gilly Moon and Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Sam Cai. Kate Concannon is our editor, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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