There are increasing calls around the world to lift patents on COVID 19 vaccines and thus speed up their production. But the idea, which is unlikely to materialize, could endanger future research.
We must get out of the “outdated patent system (to) provide a vaccine to all of humanity,” said Robin Guittard, an Oxfam executive in early February.
Clearly marked on the left, this international NGO is not alone in making this discourse.
In recent days, laboratories producing anti-COVID-19 vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, have been facing a wave of political mobilization to abandon their rights.
For its supporters, only a measure of this type will quickly produce enough vaccines, especially in the poorest countries. In fact, when a group holds a patent, it alone is authorized to use the technology for several years.
The debate is as old as the health crisis. But it resurfaces and forces even the French head of state, Emmanuel Macron, to take a stand.
Mr. Macron, who promised last year to make the vaccine a “global public good”, appeared more timid last week in a television interview, refusing to see a “constraint (in) intellectual property”.
This caution testifies to the low political probability of a general exemption from patents on these vaccines at the international level.
“It would take ten or twenty years,” said Samira Guennif, specialist in industrial economics at Paris-Nord University, to AFP.
“The countries of the North, where companies hold the patents, have the rest of the planet against them which does not have any patents,” she sums up.
As a sign of this balance of power, the World Trade Organization gave up at the end of 2020 to lift the patents on these vaccines in the face, in particular, of European and American opposition.
But is this failure a bad thing? Not necessarily for many economists.
“If there was only one producer, then yes, okay, but we are not in that case,” says economist François Lévêque, a specialist in competition, to AFP.
He notes that the niche promises to be particularly competitive, with many projects underway, which limits the risk that a limited number of players paralyze the market with their patents.
Useless for some, the exemption is even dangerous and counterproductive for others, even if it is justified by a case of force majeure such as the fight against COVID 19.
“What this gives as a signal is that if innovation is important we allow everyone to produce and, ultimately, the innovative company no longer enters its research costs”, estimates from the AFP health economist Izabela Jelovac, attached to the CNRS.
“We have to make sure that it is not more interesting for laboratories to do research against hair loss than for Covid”, she insists.
There are all the same intermediate solutions. International law allows states to provisionally pre-empt a patent in an emergency.
This system, the compulsory license, has, according to Ms. Jelovac, the advantage of “maintaining the incentive to do research” because it provides for compensating the group at the origin of the patent.
But for what amount? You have to measure what the group spent on research, how much it would have earned by keeping its patent and, finally, what the company could lose without this innovation, a potentially astronomical amount in the fight against COVID.
In the end, some lawyers find it much easier to explore alternatives to patent circumvention.
This involves, for example, facilitating partnerships with local groups, especially in less wealthy countries, to impart the technological skills necessary for the production of vaccines.
Among the producers of anti-Covid vaccines, the British AstraZeneca has thus distinguished itself from Pfizer and Moderna by signing a partnership with the giant Serum Institute of India, thus enabling on-site production at high speed.
“We have here at the legal level a solution which is much better than removing patents”, concludes with AFP Julien Chaisse, professor of law at the City University of Hong Kong, deeming risky in the current context to push the States to try the passage in force vis-a-vis the laboratories.