Don’t suspend IP protections on Covid-19 diagnostics and therapeutics

By Frank Cullen

By December 17, the World Trade Organization TRIPS Council is obligated to decide whether to extend the current waiver on Covid-19 vaccines to therapeutics and diagnostics. During recent informal meetings of the Council, South Africa and India remained the most vocal proponents of the expanded waiver. The European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have yet to take a position — and, as with the vaccine waiver, the stance adopted by the United States will prove consequential.

C4IP Co-chairs Andrei Iancu and David Kappos — along with Gary Locke, the former secretary of commerce and ambassador to China during the Obama administration — warned against such IP waivers in their co-authored report, “The Shot Heard around the World: The Strategic Imperative of U.S. Covid-19 Vaccine Diplomacy,” last year. They cautioned that stripping vaccine developers of the internationally recognized IP protections underpinning their products and processes “will not lower barriers; it will only create new ones.”

The same rings true for nullifying the IP protections underpinning therapeutics and diagnostics. There are no existing supply shortages — in fact, production now exceeds demand for Covid-19 medicines. Covid-19 therapeutic manufacturers have signed 140 voluntary licensing and manufacturing agreements to increase access to these products. Pfizer and Merck, for instance, have willingly licensed their patents to the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool — enabling generic producers worldwide to manufacture their respective antivirals Paxlovid and Molnupiravir.

An expanded waiver would, however — as Iancu and Kappos foresaw — strike a severe blow to innovation in every sector by calling U.S. support for basic IP rights into question. Diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines manufactured for Covid-19 may be the first products impacted, but they’ll be far from the last.

When the TRIPS waiver was debated in May 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was already discussing how renewable energy technology “must be treated as essential and freely-available global public goods” and “removing obstacles to knowledge sharing and technological transfer — including intellectual property constraints — is crucial for a rapid and fair renewable energy transition.”

And, of equal concern, the TRIPS waiver expansion would hamper U.S. competitiveness and domestic manufacturing by allowing companies in South Africa, India, and China to appropriate U.S.-developed technologies. There would be significant ramifications for U.S. businesses, in sectors ranging from software to entertainment to high-tech manufacturing.

IP rights form the bedrock of U.S. innovation, economic competitiveness, and national security. The waiver must not be extended.

Frank Cullen is executive director of the Council for Innovation Promotion.

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