Patent waivers and the impact on global vaccine shortages
Giving up intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines will not help address the global supply shortage, the co-founder of a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company told CNBC.
The push for patent waivers is a “political theater” and does not inherently allow others to create safe and effective vaccines, which are already very difficult to manufacture, said Jake Becraft, CEO and co-founder of Strand Therapeutics.
His company does not produce any Covid-19 vaccine, but is developing a platform to create programmable messenger RNA drugs, which can trigger the body’s own immune response to fight disease.
“We need to engage with what we’re already making and scale it around the world as much as possible,” Becraft said Monday on CNBC. “Squawk Box Asia. “
A global shortage of Covid-19 vaccines has left some countries searching for supplies to roll out their immunization programs. In fact, India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, is also facing an internal shortage in the midst of a devastating second wave.
Health experts, advocacy groups and international medical charities have argued that giving up intellectual property rights is essential to tackle the global vaccine shortage and avoid prolonging the health crisis. It comes as many countries are affected, especially in Asia, grappling with new waves of infections from mutated variants of Covid.
But, vaccine manufacturers argue that such a move could disrupt the flow of raw materials and lead to less investment in health research by smaller biotech innovators.
Last year, India and South Africa submitted a joint proposal to the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights to Covid vaccines.
Known as Travel Waiver – or Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights – the plan was blocked by some high-income countries including the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, and the European Union, among others. France, for example, said the way to step up global inoculation is for vaccine-producing countries to step up exports.
While the United States initially blocked the proposal, the Biden’s administration said this month it supports intellectual property rights waivers for Covid-19.
Becraft said vaccines need to be made in high-tech, tightly controlled facilities and the required technology does not exist around the world. This means that even with a patent waiver, some countries will not have the know-how to produce their own vaccines.
“If we want safe and effective vaccines, we need to inspire these companies to really build their manufacturing capacity globally,” he said.
“We have to go to Moderna, we have to go to BioNTech, and say, ‘What will it take for you to transfer your technology to these countries in the developing world? “” Becraft said.
Unless vaccines are globally accessible to everyone, there will always be a risk of a variant of Covid that renders vaccines ineffective, he added. “All of our progress at this point will be for naught.”
Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council, agreed that a patent waiver will not solve the issue of increasing vaccine supply to the rest of the world.
With a patent waiver, it would take months or years before the technology, raw materials and production capacity were up to the required standards. so that countries can produce their own vaccines, she told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.
Instead, the focus should be on helping countries that already produce vaccines to increase their production.
“A lot of these (vaccine) manufacturers are already in discussions with India, with Indian companies, on how they can try to make some of them in India,” Biswal said. “It’s probably a faster and more efficient way to do this than to talk about a travel waiver.”
Becraft of Strand Therapeutics added that in the longer term, global governments must provide more funding and infrastructure support to pharmaceutical companies to build manufacturing sites around the world.
Last week BioNTech announced the construction of a manufacturing facility in Singapore to produce its mRNA-based vaccines.
– CNBC’s Silvia Amaro contributed reporting.