TRIPS Waiver Fast Facts

Property Rights Alliance and our alliance partners have warned repeatedly (a few samples here, here, here, here, and here) that a waiver of intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization is a distraction from getting as many vaccines into the arms of people around the world in the shortest amount of time possible.  

Indeed, a waiver of intellectual property rights would create more harm than possible good. It undermines the market-driven innovation ecosystem which not only is a competitive advantage, but is responsible for the breakthrough vaccines and therapeutics that have saved billions of lives.  

The waiver does nothing to solve last-mile delivery issues or educate populations or address vaccine hesitancy—the main barriers to increasing vaccination rates around the world.  

As news of a TRIPS compromise comes to ahead several myths remain that are driving policymakers to an irreversible and catastrophic decision. 

Myth: There aren’t enough vaccines.  

Fact: There are enough vaccines. Already more than 13 billion doses have been administered in 184 countries. Annual production capacity will reach 24 billion doses in June 2022- enough to vaccinate three times the amount necessary to achieve the WHO’s call to vaccinate 70 percent of the world population and provide boosters. 

Several developing countries, including South Africa have asked for vaccine deliveries to be suspended due to oversupply. While others, such as Nigeria have destroyed vaccines due to them expiring before they can be used.  In fact, Gavi, responsible for distributing COVID vaccines through the COVAX facility stated “COVAX was now in a situation where there was enough current supply to meet demand.”

Myth: Waiving IP rights would allow more companies to produce vaccines.

Fact: IP rights are crucial for the transfer of technology and securing additional vaccine production. Over the course of the pandemic vaccine innovators have exercised their IP rights to ink more than 350 voluntary licensing agreements with manufacturers around the world to produce COVID vaccines. Many of these agreements have been with firms in developing countries such as India and Brazil. Waiving IP rights would freeze such international private-sector cooperation when it is needed the most.

Myth: The TRIPS compromise is limited in scope and would not harm future innovation.

Fact: Developing new medicines has been called one of the world’s riskiest ventures. On average a new medicine can take up to 10 years and cost up to $2.8 billion while 90% fail to make it through FDA approval. In the U.S. only 2 vaccines have been approved while 26 have failed, zero COVID treatments have been fully approved but 94 have failed.

If the U.S. paves the way for the WTO to waive IP rights at the WTO for COVID vaccines there is no reason not to expect a repeat for future breakthrough medicines, deterring the high-risk and high-reward long term investment that led to COVID mRNA vaccines. If intellectual property is ever a barrier to public health the TRIPS agreement includes built-in mechanisms to avoid the harm such a blanket waiver would cause.

Consequently, there are not expected benefits of the TRIPS waiver. Private enterprise, buttressed by a robust global intellectual property rights system, has developed novel highly effective COVID vaccines and enabled global production to meet global demand in two years. It’s an amazing accomplishment! The intellectual property rights that undergird this system that must be preserved. The TRIPS waiver threatens to undo that system. It will not lead to more vaccine production in a shorter amount of time, it will not address the main barriers of last-mile delivery or vaccine hesitancy.

What the TRIPS waiver will do:

  • Proponents of the waiver must accept that a waiver, in any form, will add significant risk to the sort of long-term investments that led to the mRNA vaccines we have today, blunting pandemic preparedness for future generations.
  • The waiver itself rewards the nearly absolute import-substitution regime in India which imposes some of the world’s highest tariffs on pharmaceuticals and APIs. In the midst of the pandemic the Modi government refused to import vaccines, only accepted donations, and then blocked vaccine exports.  Instead, the lesson should be learned from the COVID pandemic: programs like Operation Warp Speed that worked with the private-sector and used advanced-purchase orders worked best.
  • The waiver will likely increase vaccine hesitancy. India, the chief proponent of the waiver, may eventually be able to produce some of the vaccines they aren’t producing yet under a license. However, India is also the top producer of false or mislabeled medical products in the world, including certain therapeutics used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Proponents of the TRIPS waiver have also not explained how nations like China, an adversary, would be prevented from taking advantage of the waived patent rights to pursue their own technological goals.