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Using Intellectual Property to Help COVID-19 Vaccine Policy and Distribution

Understanding and utilizing intellectual property strategically can accelerate COVID relief and sustainability transitions globally.

COVID-19 vaccines have been developed in record time, by record demand, under a framework of global collaboration that has set a record for open science. Now,  governments around the world have approved various vaccines for emergency use and now the challenges around global distribution begin. Though the US, UK and other wealthy countries are having roll-out and/or manufacturing problems, these countries in the Global North are widening the divide between the haves and have-nots by buying out the vaccines for themselves.

After extended criticism from activists, intergovernmental organizations and the science coummunity, G7 leaders are finally deliberating on vaccine donations to developing countries, but they are still divided over the speed of this dissemination.

Governments, industry and philanthropists poured large amounts of funding into a multitude of vaccine development research studies and subsequent manufacturing projects. Along with these unprecedented developments, entrenched by a rise in open science,  the usage of Intellectual property (IP) has also been positively disrupted.  

Patents (or the prospect of getting a patent) can provide strong investment incentives for people who wanted to support the search for a COVID-19 vaccine,  in the same way that they might support the development of environmental friendly technology or technology that uses sustainable forms of energy. Licensing mechanisms are important for the Global South to access sustainable technologies, but also for COVID-19 diagnostics and vaccines. 

The Intellectual Property Models for Accelerating Sustainability Transitions (IPACST) project, part of the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme, argues that with the appropriate IP models, knowledge sharing can flourish – and technology transfer is accelerated – enabling collaborative learning that nurtures sustainable innovation. 

IPACST, a major three-year international and interdisciplinary research project,  brings together the fields of sustainability, IP and innovation management, together with political sciences and engineering, to transform our understanding of the role played by different IP models in accelerating sustainability transitions. It is one of 12 transnational research projects funded through the T2S programme. 

Only companies claiming IP ownership can decide what to do with their IP (for example, how usage is governed). This can range all the way from not sharing their IP (i.e. excluding others) to licensing it for free usage by all (e.g. through patent pledges or open-source licensing). 

Given the severity of the pandemic, several rights-holders of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments leaned towards an open science initiative to not exclude others from using their inventions. For example, the US biopharmaceutical company AbbVie announced that it will not enforce its patents on an antiviral drug of interest against COVID-19. Meanwhile, Gilead sought to rescind their exclusivity on a seven-year orphan drug that had the potential to treat COVID-19 patients, and the Serum Institute of India announced that it won’t file patent rights for coronavirus-related research and manufacturing. 

These are unmatched advancements in the realm of intellectual property and open science, yet several IP obstacles still come in the way of the massive task of manufacturing and distributing the vaccine in time to reach herd immunity, especially in the Global South.  

“Policy makers can take several steps to encourage innovation in this area of public good. The initial phase of the pandemic highlighted the effectiveness of patent pools as a mechanism to create and disseminate the vaccine at a rapid rate.  Mechanisms of IP collaborations, like voluntary licensing with negotiated price with the government or exploring a combination of IP and Non-IP incentives, or public private partnerships are some designs options for various stages of the vaccine technology value chain, in order to ensure rapid vaccination.”

– Anjula Gurtoo, Professor, Indian Institute of Science; IPACST Project Team Member

New research suggests that wealthy countries have bought up over half of the doses from leading vaccine manufacturers, while they only represent 14% of the world’s population. This means that nearly 70 poor countries will not be able to vaccinate 9 in 10 people.

“A COVID-19 vaccine must be seen as a global public good, a people’s vaccine”

– António Guterres, UN Secretary General

Here are some steps governments can implement to tackle IP challenges and help aid global herd immunity: 

Government facilitated voluntary licensing: In this option, the government negotiates with the patent owner for lower prices instead of opting to establish compulsory licensing. Negotiating for voluntary licenses can open up reasonable rates for all parties and does not impede the rights of the patent owner. The technology can be transferred on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, not harming the possibility of future explorations into vaccine research and manufacturing. On the other hand, the patent owner can also facilitate voluntary licensing as pre-emptive measure to compulsory licensing, leveraging a better relationship and negotiation dynamic for them.

Transferable/roaming intellectual property right: a company is awarded an additional IP on a product of its choice in exchange for developing a given product pertaining to a neglected disease. This implies the company is awarded further patents on a distinct product of their selection (for example, a brand new headache medicine) in exchange for voluntary licensing of any COVID-19 connected drug or vaccine.

Political leaders around the world have been developing plans for removing obstacles in order to improve access to COVID-19 related IP rights.

Significant developments are being made in relation to IP domains. These unprecedented efforts by governments should help ensure patents don’t obstruct the fight against the pandemic and ensure access for the South. These developments also shine a light on future possibilities that could lead to further technological advancements and tackle the strong need for equitable and inclusive access to innovations for the wider community.

IP can be used as a tool that will govern global open innovation systems. Currently, there’s an urgent need to examine and implement IP options that can support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and address the climate crisis. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as a UN intergovernmental agency, will be crucial in these discussions.

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COVID-19 Scenarios Project:

The ISC has launched a new COVID-19 project, outlining a range of scenarios over the mid- and long-term that aim to assist our understanding of the options for achieving an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic.


The IPACST project  builds interdisciplinary research that furthers our understanding of transition processes with a focus on the role of IP models (e.g. patent pools and pledges, licensing, open source) and sustainability. The research team works with relevant stakeholders in ecosystems for sustainable innovations including companies, policymakers, funding organizations and start-up incubators, to select and govern suitable IP models for sustainable business models, supporting sustainable technologies, production and consumption patterns. 

Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

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