This year is certainly not short of surprises.
Late on Wednesday afternoon in Washington DC, Katherine Tai – President Joe Biden’s top trade advisor – dropped a completely unexpected bombshell which may go down as an historical step in the direction of getting through this interminable COVID-19 pandemic.
She announced that the United States had decided to reverse course and back a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.
This change of tack has been welcomed by countries who have championed this move such as South Africa and India but has sent shockwaves through the pharmaceutical industry.
Intellectual property rights – or patents – are the very foundation upon which the pharmaceutical industry is built on. The billions and billions of dollars which are spent on research and development to produce new drugs, such as vaccines for COVID-19, are deemed worthwhile investments for businesses such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson because they can be certain they will recoup these enormous sums through royalties on the drugs for generations to come.
Now, the Biden administration has decided to rip up this tacit agreement. Should this be approved at the global level of the World Trade Organisation then any business anywhere in the world can access the information detailing the insanely complicated process that manufacturing these vaccines entails and produce and sell their own elixirs for preventing COVID-19.
It is similar to the US government abruptly announcing that Coca-Cola has to release the recipe of their “secret sauce”, and anyone is now able to manufacture a generic can of Coke.
Of course this move is not without precedent.
The battle against HIV was only won when after years of activism the WTO, after pressure from the US government, announced that the patents on anti-retroviral medication would be suspended as it was deemed a global pandemic. Until that point President Thabo Mbeki had famously deemed ARVs too expensive for South Africans, and prescribed African potato and garlic instead.
As soon as those patents were suspended the prices of ARVs collapsed, meaning that even third world countries such as South Africa could afford to roll out national ARV programmes saving millions of lives. Aspen Pharmacare was the manufacturer of the millions of doses desperately needed by HIV positive South Africans.
Now, a similar dynamic is at play. The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine currently retails around USD38 a shot, which would make a national vaccine campaign almost prohibitively expensive, and in addition the number of manufacturing sites are limited by the very few businesses which make them.
Is this therefore the moment the virus is conquered, not just by the First World but also by African and Asian countries which until now have barely started their vaccination campaigns?
As usual, the truth is a mixture of yes and no.
Yes absolutely, this is a critical step in the right direction. Patents of Covid-19 vaccines have been a massive hindrance to both manufacturing these products in the necessary quantities but also making them affordable.
However, a vaccine is a very different thing to a drug which is administered in the form of a tablet. Modern vaccines are very difficult as they are essentially alive. They contain “active pharmaceutical ingredients”, which are the lifeblood of the dose and which is the substance which interacts with the recipients cellular make up.
At the moment there is no capacity to manufacture these products from scratch on the African continent. Even Aspen’s new vaccine factory in Gqeberha plant is only a ‘fit and finish’ facility, which means it depends on imports of the live material and merely packages them.
Somewhat like the Mercedes Benz and BMW factories in South Africa which import parts and engines and then assemble them into cars. We are still not vaccine self-sufficient as we need to import the essential ingredients, patent or no patent.
And it will take years and billions of Rands of investment to get there.
Will it happen for this pandemic? The reality is probably not, however this is a massive step in the right direction.
Pandemics such as COVID-19 are a global problem which require global solutions. US and European drug companies making billions of dollars from vaccines is not part of the answer.