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Patents for COVID vaccines – good idea or bad idea?

The growing debate on whether intellectual property rights relating to COVID vaccine technologies should be waived is shining a torch on patents. But will the massive global demand for COVID vaccinations be addressed by unlocking patents?

Most commentators agree that the bottleneck of vaccine supply is with manufacturing capability. Behind this sits issues with the supply of ingredients required for vaccine manufacture, the need to build high spec manufacturing plants, and the transfer of critical know-how from those who are currently producing vaccines to others so they are able to produce effective vaccines reliably and safely.

There is no evidence (yet) of any perceived or real threat of enforcement of patent rights being a hindrance to COVID vaccine supply.

At present, the issue is not about patents, but it is, at least partly, about intellectual property. Another reminder that intellectual property is very much more than registered rights. Unregistered rights such as know-how, confidential information and trade secrets are critical components of intellectual property associated with vaccine development and manufacture.

Patents are expected to provide sufficient information to enable the invention defined in the patent to be carried out. But the reality is that a great deal of know-how and information not included in a patent is needed to successfully roll out a vaccine on any kind of meaningful scale.

There will be pressure on the large companies currently producing COVID vaccines to transfer their know-how as part of initiatives to expand global supply. That pressure will come from political leaders. But we should all understand that the debate is not about patent rights, it’s about know-how transfer and investment to expand manufacturing capacity.

Further downstream, when the world is on top of the COVID pandemic, relevant patents may be at the heart of commercial arrangements. Until then, there is no harm in those who have found innovative ways to solve problems that enable the rapid and reliable manufacture of important vaccines obtaining patents for their efforts.

No one wants to see patents get in the way of COVID vaccines reaching those who need them, and at the moment that’s pretty much all of us.

More on the debate in this BBC News Night item:

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