Member countries of the World Trade Organization reached a limited deal on Friday to ease intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines, with the aim of increasing supply for poorer countries.
The move would make it easier for manufacturers in developing countries to take out patents on vaccines and export them for sale in other low-income countries.
But the deal, the result of an ambitious patent exemption proposed nearly two years ago, comes too late and is too modest in scope to significantly affect global vaccine supply, experts said.
“This doesn’t really take us beyond the status quo in any meaningful way,” said Mihir Mankad, a researcher who advises Doctors Without Borders in the United States on global health policy and advocacy issues.
A key limitation is time. Production of Covid-19 vaccines by the major pharmaceutical companies that invented them now far outstrips demand. The main obstacles suppressing vaccination rates in low-income countries are challenges with distribution and vaccines, not with supply itself.
The deal does not apply to coronavirus tests and treatments, which experts said were the most urgent priorities at this point in the pandemic, and their global supply could increase significantly due to a relaxation of intellectual property protections.
In October 2020, with rich countries blocking orders for soon-to-be-available Covid vaccines, India and South Africa drafted an ambitious waiver of intellectual property rights under the WTO agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights. , known as TRIPS.
A year ago, when poorer countries were still facing severe vaccine shortages, the Biden administration supported the proposal. The move was a significant departure from decades of US-led opposition to loosening intellectual property rules on medicines.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai heralded Friday’s agreement as “a concrete and significant outcome to bring safer and more effective vaccines to those who need them most.”
But experts said the proposal was significantly weakened during months of negotiations. They said they did not expect the final deal to encourage manufacturers in developing countries to start producing Covid vaccines, in part because it does not address the trade secrets and manufacturing know-how that many producers would need.
The pharmaceutical industry, which argues that strong intellectual property protections are crucial for innovation, has fiercely opposed the WTO effort during the negotiations.
The industry’s main lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, sharply criticized Friday’s deal. Stephen J. Ubl, the group’s head, called it one of a series of “political stunts” and said it “will not help protect people from the virus.” He noted that the industry had already produced more than 13 billion doses of Covid vaccines.
James Love, who heads Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit organization focused on intellectual property in medicine, said Friday’s deal is far from a patent exemption, as originally envisioned in the WTO proposal.
“To some people it may seem like some magical new flexibility,” he said. But the agreement is limited to “taking the most cumbersome way of exporting and making it less cumbersome,” she said.
Friday’s deal clarifies and expands existing mechanisms that allow compulsory licensing, in which governments override intellectual property restrictions to allow drug manufacturing, usually in emergency situations. But compulsory licenses have not been easy in the past.
“It’s politically very, very difficult, and countries that try to do it face a lot of pressure,” said Melissa Barber, a researcher who studies access to medicines at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Maybe this will make it easier, but I think those power dynamics are not going to change.”