Daniel Walsh, MJLST Staffer
The SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes the disease COVID-19) has been a massive challenge to public health causing untold human suffering. Multiple vaccines and biotechnologies have been developed to combat the virus at a record pace, enabled by innovations in biotechnology. These technologies, vaccines in particular, represent the clearest path towards ending the pandemic. Governments have invested heavily in vaccine development. In May 2020 the United States made commitments to purchase, at the time, untested vaccines. These commitments were intended to indemnify the manufacture of vaccines allowing manufacturing to begin before regulatory approval was received from the Food and Drug Administration. The United States was not alone. China and Germany, just to name two, contributed heavily to funding the development of biotechnology in response to the pandemic. It is clear that both private and public institutions contributed heavily to the speed with which biotechnology has been developed in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. However, there are criticisms that the public-private partnerships underlying vaccine manufacturing and distribution have been opaque. The contracts between governments and manufacturers are highly secretive, and contain clauses that disadvantage the developing world, for example forbidding the donation of extra vaccine doses.
Advanced biotechnology necessarily implicates intellectual property (IP) protections. Patents are the clearest example of this. Patents protect what is colloquially thought of as inventions or technological innovations. However, other forms of IP also have their place. Computer code, for example, can be subject to copyright protection. A therapy’s brand name might be subject to a trademark. Trade secrets can be used to protect things like clinical trial data needed for regulatory approval. IP involved in the pandemic is not limited to technologies developed directly in response to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Moderna, for example, has a variety of patents filed prior to the pandemic that protect its SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. IP necessarily restricts access, however, and in the context of the pandemic this has garnered significant criticism. Critics have argued that IP protections should be suspended or relaxed to expand access to lifesaving biotechnology. The current iteration of this debate is not unique; there is a perennial debate about whether it should be possible to obtain IP which could restrict access to medical therapies. Many nations have exceptions that limit IP rights for things like medical procedures. See, e.g., 35 U.S.C. 287(c).
In response to these concerns the waiver of a variety of IP protections has been proposed at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In October 2020 India and South Africa filed a communication proposing “a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) sets minimum standards for IP standards, acquisition, and enforcement and creates an intergovernmental dispute resolution process for member states. Charles R. McManis, Intellectual Property and International Mergers and Acquisitions, 66 U. Cin. L. Rev. 1283, 1288 (1998). It is necessary to accede to TRIPS in order to join the WTO, but membership in the WTO has significant benefits, especially for developing nations. “Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 . . .” relate to the protection of copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and trade secrets respectively. Waiver would permit nation states to provide intellectual property protections “in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19” that fall below the minimum standard set by the TRIPs Agreement. At time of writing, 10 nations have cosponsored this proposal.
This proposal has been criticized as unnecessary. There is an argument that patents will not enter effect until after the current crisis is resolved, implying they will have no preclusive effect. However, as previously mentioned, it is a matter of fact that preexisting patents apply to therapies that are being used to treat SARS-CoV-2. Repurposing is common in the field of biotechnology where existing therapies are often repurposed or used as platforms, as is the case with mRNA vaccines. However, it is true that therapies directly developed in response to the pandemic are unlikely to be under patent protection in the near future given lag between filing for and receiving a patent. Others argue that if investors perceive biotech as an area where IP rights are likely to be undermined in the event of an emergency, it will reduce marginal investment in vaccine and biotech therapies. Finally, critics argue that the proposal ignores the existing mechanisms in the TRIPS Agreement that would allow compulsory licensing of therapies that nations feel are unavailable. Supporters of the status quo argue that voluntary licensing agreements can serve the needs of developing nations while preserving the investments in innovation made by larger economies.
The waiver sponsors respond that a wholesale waiver would permit greater flexibility in the face of the crisis, and be a more proportionate response to the scale of the emergency. They also assert that the preexisting compulsory licensing provisions are undermined by lobbying against compulsory licensing by opponents of the waiver, though it is unlikely that this lobbying would cease even if a waiver were passed. The sponsors also argue that the public investment implies that any research products are a public good and should therefore be free to the public.
It is unclear how the current debate on TRIPS will be resolved. The voluntary licensing agreements might end up abrogating the need for a wholesale waiver of IP protections in practice rendering the debate moot. However, the WTO should consider taking up the issue of IP protections in a crisis after the current emergency is over. The current debate is a reflection of a larger underlying disagreement about the terms of the TRIPS Agreement. Further, uncertainty about the status of IP rights in emergencies can dissuade investment in the same way as erosion of IP rights, implying that society may pay the costs of decreased investment without reaping any of the benefits.