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Waiving the vaccine patent may come down to giving pharmaceutical companies incentives

President Joe Biden has given the initial nod for the U.S. to waive patent rights on COVID vaccines to boost international production. But there are real questions over how effective these moves would be, what other countries feel about it, and when this would translate into action. William Brangham discusses the matter with Rachel Silverman, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's return to the pandemic here and abroad.

    President Biden has given the initial go-ahead for the U.S. to waive patent rights on COVID vaccines, in an effort to boost production internationally for countries in need.

    But there are real questions over how effective these moves would be, what else is needed, and when this would translate into more shots in arms.

    William Brangham focuses on that part of the story tonight.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the response by some European countries today on this patent question hinted at some of those very complications.

    The president of the European Commission, for example, would not commit a bloc of European countries to waiving these patent protections. But that's not the only concern here.

    Let's explore more of this with Rachel Silverman. She's a policy fellow at the Center For Global Development.

    Rachel Silverman, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    What was your reaction when the Biden administration made this announcement yesterday?

  • Rachel Silverman:

    Well, great to be here this evening.

    So, my reaction is that I'm very encouraged that the Biden administration, with this move, is signaling its willingness and eagerness to take bold action, that it understands the scope of the challenge before us, that it is treating this as the number one global issue, diplomatic issue, security issue that needs to be solved, and is signaling that it's willing to make moves that might upset the apple cart, that break out of old paradigms and that show real ambition.

    I do think this move itself is probably largely symbolic in this respect. It will be quite a long time before WTO members agree on a patent waiver, if they agree at all. I think, probably the practical effect of that patent waiver will be fairly marginal.

    But I am optimistic that this signals a more proactive role for the Biden administration in entering the fray and really solving this problem on behalf of the entire world.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if waiving these — this intellectual property isn't the most effective route, what would you argue is the most urgent thing we ought to be doing?

  • Rachel Silverman:

    So, I think we need to be thinking much more ambitiously about the scale of resources we're willing to put in to scale up vaccines.

    I think we're still thinking very small. The U.S.' contribution to COVAX is $4 billion. That is welcome, but it is not enough to vaccinate…

  • William Brangham:

    COVAX being the global vaccine supply.

  • Rachel Silverman:

    Yes. Yes, exactly.

    It's not enough to vaccinate the world. And the United States has produced these vaccines. We are very fortunate that most people in the United States now have the ability to access these vaccines. That's not true in most low-and middle-income countries.

    And what could help is a lot more money. There's not enough money in the system to purchase vaccines on behalf of everyone in the world, to provide the commercial certainty to industry that it should be continuing to scale up its production.

    There needs to be much more money in the system, financing a much more ambitious version of what it will take to vaccinate the world in short order.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, supporters of this move argue that there has already been a lot of money, including taxpayer money, put into the development of these vaccines, and that we are in a crisis, and these nations need to speed this process, and so this is the obligation of the companies, that they need to give these up.

  • Rachel Silverman:

    Well, I certainly agree that we are in a crisis and we need to speed this entire process up. There is no time to delay whatsoever.

    And that's exactly my concern, is that what's the most practical way forward? If we look at the TRIPS waiver, I think it will probably go ahead. It will be fine. But it will take quite a bit of time to negotiate. There are still complicated issues around technology transfer, giving companies in low- and middle-income companies the recipes, the proprietary knowledge, the cell lines needed to do this, that will not come automatically, even with a patent waiver.

    But what we can do in the short and the medium term is to put more money into the system to pull through more manufacturing capacity, to create the incentives that say, build it, and we will pay for it, and we will vaccinate the world.

    I think it's a mistake to put this onus of all of this on the pharmaceutical companies. Yes, they receive taxpayer money. Yes, taxpayers and the public, we need these vaccines, and we need them to be equitably shared, and we have a stake in doing so.

    But they are companies. They are private companies. We are the global community. We are the United States government. And we need to take the leadership role in making this happen, not just expecting pharma to do it on our behalf, without our intervention.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to ask you about another argument that the industry makes, which is, if they go about developing these vaccines, and then we swoop in and break their intellectual property, their patents for those vaccines, that this sets a terrible precedent going forward.

    Do you share that concern?

  • Rachel Silverman:

    I think it's somewhat overstated. But the reason I think it's overstated is because, again, I think the effect of this patent waiver will be quite marginal.

    That said, the part I do agree with them on is that we definitely do want to send a signal to the market that you will be rewarded if you solve the most important issues facing humanity. What we don't want is a situation where all of the private pharmaceutical companies decide, you know what, it's not worth our while to tackle the big problems. We'd rather find the next Botox, just work on cosmetic treatments or things we can sell to rich people for a lot of money, and they will never bother us about giving it free to poor people.

    That is obviously not an optimal solution. We have a lot of problems to solve. We have malaria. We have T.B.. We have HIV. There is no vaccine. There's treatment, but no vaccine.

    We do pharma focused on solving the world's most important problems. I think the effect of the waiver will be fairly marginal in this respect. But I would like it see a focus on incentives to produce what matters, that you will be rewarded with if you do, and not penalized because what you produced is so important.

    But that doesn't mean hoarding on — hoarding the supply. That doesn't mean it's OK to not vaccinate the entire world. It's not. And we can do both at once.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Rachel Silverman at the Center For Global Development, thank you very much for being here.

  • Rachel Silverman:

    Thank you.

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