South Africa’s Biovac institute will help produce more than 100 million doses annually of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine across African nations. The agreement fits into a larger trend of major pharmaceutical companies like
Yet policy watchers argue the latest deal won’t come close to meeting needed vaccination numbers on a continent that’s still struggling with the pandemic. Waiving patent and other intellectual property rights associated with Covid-19 vaccines would better enable production in countries in need as the Delta variant rages, they argue.
“The scope and the size of the deal are fundamentally inadequate,” said Zain Rizvi, a Public Citizen law and policy researcher focusing on access to medicines.
“We need to make sure IP is not a barrier. We need to rapidly share technology, and we need to make significant investments to ramp up capacity. It’s a three-legged stool,” he said. The South African deal is “a ploy by Pfizer to distract frankly from the more structural conversation that’s going on.”
The Biden administration, Democratic lawmakers, and others have backed the idea of waiving vaccine IP protections. Negotiations over a waiver proposal are underway at the World Trade Organization, but are moving slowly.
Opponents of an IP waiver say it would compromise critical aspects of production, leaving partnerships with vaccine makers a better option for getting doses out the door.
“This is the type of thing that opponents of the waiver have been calling for,” said Jaci McDole, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Partnerships are how companies “get these vaccines and therapeutics to the people that need them” while “making sure they maintain quality control through the supply chain.”
Vaccine doses are relatively plentiful in wealthier countries. The U.S. has given enough shots for 53.1% of its population, while the U.K. clocks in around 62%, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.
For the African Union, it’s a different story. South Africa—one of the initial pushers for a global halt to vaccine IP enforcement—doled out doses for about 6% of its population, Bloomberg’s tracker says. Sudan’s numbers hover around 1%, and Egypt’s at 2.5%.
“Pharmaceutical companies realize this is getting very bad, and everyone who isn’t vaccinated is another opportunity for transmission, which is another opportunity for mutation,” said Daniel Takash, a Niskanen Center regulatory policy fellow.
If deals like Pfizer’s Biovac partnership “emerge in coming months left and right, then you can probably moot” the need for an IP waiver, Takash said. “While this is really spectacular news, I don’t think it will be quite enough.”
Yet some policy watchers think private partnerships hold the key to greater vaccination reach overseas.
“Biopharmaceutical manufacturers are committed to global vaccine equity and have entered into hundreds or partnerships around the world to increase production as quickly as possible,” Brian Newell, spokesman at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry group representing drug companies, said in a statement.
“Efforts to waive intellectual property protections are unnecessary and harmful to our collective work to end the pandemic,” Newell said.
Efforts are underway to get more shots in arms across the world.
For example, the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program links up global players for equitable vaccine access. In June, the Biden administration announced plans to use the program to distribute 75% of 25 million vaccine doses to countries in Central America, South America, Asia, and Africa.
Many companies have launched their own partnerships to increase doses, such as AstraZeneca’s partnership with the Serum Institute of India to produce more vaccines. India is among the countries calling for a vaccine IP waiver.
The Biovac deal marks another example of companies “using the existing mechanism to collaborate widely across the world to manufacture quality vaccines at the maximum capacity of the world’s production facilities,” said Andrei Iancu, former patent office director during the Trump administration.
Iancu said waiving IP rights could prove detrimental to these partnerships, however. Vaccine production requires know-how, and having to forfeit protections could make companies reluctant to share their knowledge, he said.
What’s more, IP waiver opponents note that the manufacturing process is complicated, and setting up a factory and getting production moving are no small propositions.
“The IP system enables these collaborations. And if we now retroactively suspend intellectual property rights, the most likely outcome is not to help but to harm these collaborations,” Iancu said.