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Pfizer, J&J Balk at Calls to Loosen Grip on Covid Vaccine Rights

April 22, 2021, 9:44 PM

Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnson officials on Thursday hailed intellectual property as a major bolster for Covid-19 vaccine distribution, balking at calls from the global community to waive patent rights for broader immunization.

“The IP system is critical in ensuring that these various technologies on different platforms all can be leveraged to create a portfolio of Covid-19 vaccines to be deployed all over the world,” Bryan Zielinski, chief patent counsel at Pfizer, said during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The remarks come after government officials, financiers, and drugmakers from around the world met last week to discuss barriers to ramping up Covid-19 vaccine production and distribution. President Joe Biden is facing calls from some lawmakers to back a proposal before the World Trade Organization that seeks a broad waiver of rules on IP rights—including patents, copyrights, and trade secrets.

Johnson & Johnson‘s chief IP counsel Robert DeBerardine said a waiver wouldn’t help broaden global vaccine access, likening the free sharing of a vaccine “recipe” to “trying to duplicate” a classic family recipe.

“It would never come out right. It wouldn’t taste like Grandma’s cookies,” DeBerardine said.

Critics contend that IP rights are an obstacle for developing nations to secure vaccines because manufacturers favor wealthier countries that can afford to buy up mass doses at the expense of the overall supply. Without sharing IP, they say, global producers aren’t able to produce their own versions of drugs.

But Zielinski said Pfizer has “actually shared” its technology with global partners to ensure production at a worldwide scale, noting the company expects to produce 100 million doses a month by the summer.

The shots by Pfizer and Moderna Inc. are based on messenger RNA technology, which scientists say could have an important role in the development of future vaccines. J&J’s shot is based on a cold virus, called an adenovirus, that doesn’t replicate but helps the body develop an immune response against the coronavirus.

Almost 950 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, including more than 218 million in the U.S., according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

‘Tactical Know-How’

The proposal before the WTO—set out by South Africa and India last year and supported by dozens of other countries—would waive obligations on the protection of IP rights for the duration of the pandemic.

Several Democratic U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), urged Biden in an April 15 letter to support the wavier proposal, calling it “key to the end of the pandemic.” The WTO discussed the waiver request in late February but didn’t come to a decision on the proposal.

Sen. Chris Coons (D.-Del.), said in Thursday’s webinar that IP is “under both external and internal attack.” But rather than being a barrier during the pandemic, Coons said everything he has seen indicates IP has been “a facilitator of critical cutting edge innovation.”

Jayashree Watal, a former counselor for intellectual property at the WTO and member of the Governance Board of the Medicines Patent Pool, said waiving IP rights isn’t the solution. She added that the Covid-19 vaccines are complex products.

“How are you going to get the trade secrets, how are you going to get the tactical know-how except with the cooperation of the originator companies,” said Watal, noting that drugmakers like J&J don’t have the bandwidth to educate everyone on how to make the vaccines.

And openly sharing IP rights could result in production of vaccines that don’t work, DeBerardine said, citing reports of counterfeit vaccines in Poland and Mexico.

“If you were to give everything to everybody, you may see a flood of vaccines, but you would have no idea if they were safe and effective,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Lopez in Washington at; Matthew Bultman in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Alexis Kramer at