10 May 2021 23:29 IST

Biden’s vaccine shift has risky side effects

Removing vaccine patent protection may make pharma companies less keen to develop new treatments in the future

Joe Biden’s vaccine revolution risks creating lingering ailments. The U S President’s decision to back removing intellectual property protections on Covid-19 jabs is a logical move, but practical difficulties mean it may not do much to help pandemic-ravaged countries. The danger is Big Pharma is less keen to develop new treatments in the next crisis.

The US government had resisted a World Trade Organisation proposal to force drug companies to share their vaccine patents during the pandemic. Biden’s move comes amid a dramatic increase in Covid-19 deaths in India and Brazil, two countries that have trailed their Western peers when it comes to vaccine access. His backing gives the proposals a realistic shot: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promptly said Europe is willing to discuss it.

Practical difficulties

In theory, removing patent protection makes sense. It would reduce the cost of making vaccines for poorer countries, and make it easier for them to develop a broader range of remedies. Citizens in richer countries would also gain, as fewer infections would also limit the emergence of dangerous mutations.

Practical challenges, however, mean it is unlikely to make a big difference. The largest obstacle to widespread vaccines takeup is not the existence of patents, but the shortage of raw materials and manufacturing capacity. Drug companies like AstraZeneca have scoured the globe to arrange partnerships with companies such as the Serum Institute of India and Siam Bioscience in Thailand. GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, which do not have approved treatments, are helping manufacture other group’s drugs. Complex vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA remedy, require costly cold storage, making it difficult for unspecialised manufacturers to replicate.

Unintended consequences

Still, the move has rattled drug companies’ shares, with Moderna and Novavax’s stocks falling as much as 13 per cent. One concern is that the emergency temporary intervention opens the door to similar moves, say on insulin or cancer drugs. That looks unlikely: it may be hard to marshal international support for such a move outside of a crisis.

But the bigger concern is that during the next pandemic companies are less keen to develop new drugs, and charge higher prices initially to recoup their costs. That would be an unwelcome side effect for a relatively weak treatment.