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Home Research Report / Articles Making international intellectual property and trade regimes work to address the health response to COVID-19 – The burdens of exclusivity

Making international intellectual property and trade regimes work to address the health response to COVID-19 – The burdens of exclusivity
Posted on 23.05.2021

     The world was unprepared for COVID-19 despite other recent coronavirus outbreaks and despite

multiple warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) and others. Although there was an

initial sharing of research among scientists and an unleashing of significant public, charitable, and

private funding to develop, test, and expand manufacturing capacity of new COVID-19-related

medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics, the status quo of exclusive rights ownership and commercial

control by the multinational biopharmaceutical industry continues unabated. Existing intellectual

property rules that allow private entities to maintain monopoly rights over the development, clinical

testing, regulatory approval, pricing, supply, and distribution of essential medical products have not

been altered. And, the determination of rich countries to secure preferential and disproportionate

access to proven and promising vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, and personal protective equipment

remains unchanged. In place of open science and coordinated clinical trials, scientific rigor in regulatory

assessment and broad regulatory approval, low-cost pricing and rational expansion of manufacturing

capacity, and equitable global access to all needed COVID-19 health products, we have needlessly high

prices, inadequate supplies, and nationalistic hoarding, especially, but not exclusively, by the Global


Fortunately, there are multiple initiatives and proposals to counteract exclusivities, commercial

prerogatives, and rich countries’ preferential access to existing and novel COVID-19 health

technologies. These initiatives include more radical proposals to waive recognition and enforcement

of COVID-19-related intellectual property rights (IPRs) at the global and national level during the

pandemic and to extend the general least developed country transition period for enforcement of IPRs.

Other proposals focus on both voluntary and compulsory mechanisms to override IPRs, openly license,

and facilitate technology transfer of coronavirus vaccines, medicines, and diagnostics. Several global

partners have established an accelerator to speed development and marketing of new COVID-19 tools

and secure at least some supplies for low- and middle-income countries. Finally, regional cooperation

initiatives have been established.

Although there have been multiple initiatives and proposals to overcome industry’s exclusive rights

and commercial prerogatives, these efforts have not resulted in the needed paradigm shift in global

health such that life-saving and enhancing health products are viewed as global public goods rather

than as ordinary consumer products. Similarly, rich countries’ hegemonic hoarding of COVID-19 health

products and inadequate global coordination mechanisms have left the imperative of equitable

distribution of COVID-19 health products disarrayed, with the risk that twice as many people will die

from COVID-19 than if vaccines were to be shared globally. We can hope that this dystopian stasis will

be overcome, but it will take far more activism from governments, institutions, and civil society to

dislodge the current lethargic response and intellectual-property/ market fundamentalisms that leave

our world fractured in responding to this modern day plague. This global pandemic needs a global

response now and as a proving ground for future threats.

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