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Protecting intellectual property rights in health is still a crucial issue

In January 2020 we knew very little about COVID-19. Today, 10 vaccines are already available. This is α triumph of medical innovation and was made possible only by protecting intellectual property rights.

After the winter outbreak due to the milder “Omicron” variant, the epidemiological data of the last few months in Greece seem to allow for a return to a “normality of coexistence” with viruses  - as was the case before COVID-19 -. At the same time, health systems have the opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge gained from the pandemic and prepare for future similar situations, which are likely to be more frequent. In the field of vaccines, developments will be continuous and will dominate the public health agenda in the near future. 

A related public policy debate that has come to the foreground over vaccines is the issue of intellectual property rights, namely of patents. There is a request from some Member States to reduce or even remove intellectual property rights in the field of vaccine research. This is currently a debated issue in the World Health Organization (WHO). The basic argument is that fair access to such a valuable asset cannot be achieved for everyone -and especially for developing countries- unless vaccines can be produced locally, using the know-how of innovative vaccine manufacturers. My view is that this position is rather superficial and misleading. Such a decision would be counterproductive, as it will significantly reduce the incentives for innovation for research teams who continue to work in the direction of research for new treatments, drugs and effective vaccines. There are currently 10 vaccines for COVID-19 for immediate use and about 60 more that are in phase 3 or 4 of clinical trials or awaiting regulatory review. Given that in January 2020 we knew very little about COVID 19, the current situation can be considered as a triumph of innovation. The speed of the response and the availability of vaccines were made possible precisely because of the protection of these rights; these rights allowed even competing companies to cooperate and develop vaccines, as they ensured that the disclosure and sharing of all related data was adequately protected. 

The “recipe” of the vaccine is not a secret, after all. On the contrary, their publication is required in order for the relevant certifications to be awarded. Without patents, this knowledge would be limited to trade secrets and researchers who would not be able to utilize this wealth of knowledge that is produced daily. If the research effort in the field of vaccines is not protected by patent titles, then indeed the incentives for R&D are negatively affected. It is this protection that has enabled the development of multiple new safe and effective vaccines in record time and the production of billions of doses, saving lives. The ability of the private sector to innovate, manufacture and distribute these products has led to life-saving treatments and vaccines in past epidemics and will certainly play a key role in future ones. Indeed a rapid production of the required vaccines worldwide is not easy. And yet it happened. About 12 billion doses had been prepared by the end of 2021, able to cover the entire world population if we ensured equal access. These rights allowed co-production agreements with companies around the world. And this exchange of know-how was possible because the cooperation had commercial characteristics and not some external pressure for mandatory data sharing. It is not certain that the disclosure of critical information due to mere external pressure would be done effectively. Therefore, it was not the patents that were the cause of the problem of vaccine access, but the regulatory gaps and protectionist policies - such as export bans - that were recorded during the global crisis.

And it is in this area that we find room for significant improvement: harmonization of regulatory frameworks would allow vaccines to be available quicker. During the pandemic, the lack of this harmonization led to delays and different approval schemes across countries. Local producers had to find ways to comply with different regulatory authorities depending on the destination country.

This should be emphasized when dealing with the crises of the future. Governments must commit themselves reliably and effectively to maintaining global supply chains for vaccines and treatments during pandemics. Instead of restricting property rights in pandemic situations, governments should focus on concrete measures to accelerate equitable access to vaccines and medicine by harmonizing regulations and removing trade barriers.

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