Forgoing intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines won’t help address the global supply shortage, the co-founder of a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company told The Washington City Times.
The drive for patent waivers is “political theater” and does not inherently allow others to create safe and effective vaccines that are already very difficult to make, said Jake Becraft, CEO and co-founder of Strand Therapeutics.
His company does not manufacture Covid-19 vaccines, but is developing a platform to create programmable messenger RNA drugs that can activate the body’s own immune response to fight disease.
“We need to commit to what we already produce and scale it up as much as possible around the world,” Becraft said Monday on The Washington City Times’s “Squawk Box Asia.”
Shortage of vaccines
A global shortage of Covid-19 vaccines has led some countries to look for supplies to roll out their vaccination programs. In fact, India – the world’s largest vaccine producer – is also facing a domestic deficit in the midst of a devastating second wave.
Health experts, rights groups and international medical charities have argued that it is crucial to relinquish intellectual property rights to address the global vaccine shortage and prevent the health crisis from prolonging. It’s because many countries, especially Asia, are struggling with new waves of infections due to mutated Covid variants.
But vaccine makers argue that such a move could disrupt the flow of raw materials and lead to lower investment in health research by smaller biotech innovators.
Last year, India and South Africa submitted a joint proposal the World Trade Organization to waive IP rights to Covid vaccines.
Known as the Trips waiver – or Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights – the plan was blocked by a number of high-income countries, including the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada and the European Union. France, for example, argued that the way to step up global vaccination is for vaccine-producing countries to step up their exports.
While the United States initially blocked the proposal, Biden’s government said this month that it supports waiver of IP rights for Covid-19.
Strengthening the supply chain
Becraft said the vaccines have to be made in highly controlled, high-tech facilities and the required technology doesn’t exist all over the world. That means that even with a patent exemption, some countries do not have the know-how to produce their own vaccines.
Instead, Becraft suggested that pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech should instead be incentivized to transfer the technology to manufacturing sites around the world.
“If we want vaccines that are safe and effective, we need to encourage these companies to actually build global manufacturing capacity,” he said.
“We have to go to Moderna, we have to go to BioNTech, and say, ‘What does it take to transfer your technology to these developing countries?’” Said Becraft.
Unless vaccines are accessible to everyone worldwide, there will always be a risk of a Covid variant rendering vaccines ineffective, he added. “All our progress so far will be in vain.”
Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council, agreed that a patent waiver will not address the issue of boosting vaccine deliveries to the rest of the world.
With a patent exemption, it would take months or years for the technology, raw materials and production capacity to meet the required standard that countries can produce their own vaccines, she told The Washington City Times’s “Squawk Box Asia” Monday.
Instead, the focus should be on helping countries that are already producing vaccines to scale up their production.
“Many of these (vaccine) manufacturers are already in talks with India, with Indian companies, about how they can try to get some of these products produced in India,” Biswal said. “That’s probably a faster and more efficient way to do it than talking about a Trips exemption.”
Becraft of Strand Therapeutics added that in the longer term world governments need to provide more funding and infrastructure support to pharmaceutical companies to build manufacturing sites around the world.
Last week, BioNTech announced it would build a manufacturing facility in Singapore to produce its mRNA-based vaccines.
– The Washington City Times’s Silvia Amaro contributed to the reporting.