MANHATTAN — Two U.S. faith organizations on the front lines of the global coronavirus response stand with the federal government in support of waiving intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines, in an effort to help the poorer countries get more doses.
Other Catholic voices aren’t quite sold, worrying that if market incentives for developing new medicines are distorted by government action, research and development such as the extraordinary push that produced the Covid vaccine will be reduced.
Officials from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Jubilee USA Network told The Tablet they touted waiving IP protections on vaccines — copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets — as an essential step towards ending the pandemic.
“What we’re saying in this instance is that this is a disease that’s ravaging the entire globe,” said Emily Wei, director of policy for CRS. “We’re not going to eradicate it until everyone is vaccinated and you reach that herd immunity.”
CRS estimates that reaching herd immunity will take an estimated 11 billion doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population (assuming two doses are given per person).
Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA NETWORK also acknowledged the point that these vaccines are essential for stopping mutations and variants “that could re-infect people in the north if the developing world doesn’t get access to vaccines.” But, he also noted there’s a great global economic impact to not helping these countries get back on their feet.
“The longer the pandemic rages in the developing world the more economic shocks we’re going to continue to experience in the north because of the imports and exports,” LeCompte said.
The U.S. government put its support behind waiving the IP protections Wednesday. In a statement, U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai said that the “extraordinary circumstances” of the pandemic called for “extraordinary measures.”
The U.S. was the first country in the developed world to publicly support the idea, which French President Emmanuel Macron then embraced on Thursday. As did Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Friday. India and South Africa first brought up the idea in October.
Waiving the IP protections is something the Vatican has supported for months as well.
In February, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, who is the Vatican representative to the U.N. agencies in Geneva, spoke at a meeting of the World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, where he decried the fact that “in many countries, a large number of manufacturing facilities, with proven capacity to produce safe and effective vaccines, are unable to utilize those capacities, due to IP barriers.”
“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” Archbishop Jurkovic said.
There are, however, opponents to waiving the IP protections.
Stephen J. Ubl, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) — that’s members include AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — said in a statement that “this decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”
In a conversation with The Tablet, Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute — a Michigan-based think tank promoting free market policies undergirded by religious principles — said rather than waiving IP protections, there should be more of a focus on steps such as improving the supply chain. He also fears waiving IP protections sets a dangerous precedent that would take away the incentives for companies to do this work in the future.
“What’s not thought of is what made the vaccine possible in the first place. It was a whole infrastructure of property rights, prices, and incentives that enabled the research to go into it,” Father Sirico said. “People need to know that if they put all their efforts and all of their resources into the research and development of things like this that there is going to be a reward for that.”
LeCompte said he would agree with that analysis if the vaccine manufacturers hadn’t used public investments from the government to develop the vaccines in the first place.
“It’s absolutely sinful that companies that have made billions of dollars off the vaccine from no investment of their own, but from public investments from governments like the U.S. are now refusing to lift patents or help with vaccine distribution,” LeCompte told The Tablet.
“These companies are not acting in a sense of a free market. In some sense, they’re acting out of charity from the government,” he continued. “They did not pay the public investment back and now they’re making ridiculous profits and refusing to share the vaccines with poor people.”
AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson all received funding from the U.S. government to produce their COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer declined funding from the U.S. government for production. The only contract it received from the U.S. government was for the doses and distribution.
Though it used public funding, Moderna announced back in October that it won’t enforce vaccine patents during the pandemic.
Father Sirico acknowledged the companies that received public funding should have to pay that funding back to an extent, but maintained that “surrendering all IP rights seems excessive.”
At the moment, The World Trade Organization is considering a proposal led by India and South Africa to waive the IP protections of COVID-19 vaccines. However, LeCompte warns that there are still powerful nations that oppose the idea, such as Germany, and the process could take months.
“Unfortunately, we’re looking at a World Trade Organization process that could take months,” LeCompte said. “And every day that we wait not only takes lives in the developing world but it hurts people all over the world.”