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US-backed vaccine patent waiver: pros and cons explained

It’s not clear whether the TRIPS agreement is what’s getting in the way of vaccine supply, and waiving intellectual property rights may stifle future innovation.

The Biden administration has now agreed to back a proposal to suspend intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines. This is a break from US government’s long-held position on strong intellectual property protection, which has also been supported by many research-intensive countries in western Europe as well and the pharmaceutical industry.

These protections are codified in the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreements. India, South Africa, and many other emerging economies have been pushing for a waiver from patent protection, and have been supported in this effort by the director general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

While the waiver cannot be put into place until other WHO members agree (at which point manufacturers can presumably start production without any licensing agreements), more and more countries that were previously opposed to the deal, including France and New Zealand, are also now indicating their support. It could be a matter of time before the proposal goes into effect.

So what are the pros and cons of this waiver and what are the alternatives?

The primary concern remains that while the COVID-19 vaccines now thankfully exist, their distribution across the world is not even, despite the existence of the COVAX network: a global effort to share vaccines between countries.

At the time of writing, 44% of the US population and 51% of the UK population are vaccinated, but these percentages are woefully much lower in many developing economies with India at 9.4% and all of Asia and Africa at 4.4% and below 1% respectively.

Our World in Data, CC BY

The intent behind the push for the waiver is of course well intended – to remove any bottlenecks due to intellectual property protections and ramp up the production and distribution of these vaccines in the rest of the world.

The question remains as to whether the bottlenecks in COVID vaccine production are due to intellectual property protection. Typically, we think of patent protection leading to high prices and reduced output as monopolies tend to set prices well above the marginal cost of production to maximise profits.

But high prices do not seem to be the problem here. This is not the same situation as the $750 dollar pill, Daraprim, bought by “pharma bro” Martin Shrekeli.

Vaccines are priced far more reasonably even if all countries do not pay the same price for them. So even if companies like Pfizer are making profits, would removing the IP protection increase production and distribution in the developing world?

Immediate relief

If IP protection is waived, perhaps some immediate relief in terms of production and distribution could follow if more manufacturers in emerging economies can join in and allocate resources to vaccine production immediately.

However, in addition to waiving legal protections, manufacturers in emerging economies need to be supported with the technology to actually produce the vaccines. This may be particularly true of the newer mRNA vaccines such as those from Pfizer and Moderna, which are difficult to manufacture, but may equally apply to adenovirus vaccines such as the one produced by AstraZeneca.

While opening up the possibility of production via the waiver may be a start, it is not a guarantee that enough manufacturers will be found to take up production. This type of technology transfer may be best achieved via voluntary licences – in which originators provide manufacturers with the know-how to produce their vaccines – as has already been done by AstraZenca.

Future complications

One might then ask, where is the harm in trying even if this does not work? The trouble is in maintaining incentives for the future. After all, the reason we created patent protections in the first place is to provide incentives via short-term monopoly profits so that firms and individuals can invest in innovation. The monopoly creates inefficiencies, which we tolerate in exchange for technical progress.


Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: what's getting in the way of the global rollout? – The Conversation Weekly podcast


If intellectual property protection is waived in the face of a public emergency, even as a one-off, will firms invest next time there is a similar emergency? The fact that Pfizer reaped millions in profits is beside the point. What is more relevant is how much more we benefited from the vaccines through saving lives, reducing suffering, and opening up the economy (when we eventually do).

Setting aside intellectual property protection can be a dangerous precedent, particularly if it may not work.

So what can be done to alleviate the production problem globally? Voluntary licenses are a start. Along the same lines, the US could just buy the patents from the current manufacturers outright based on their discounted future value, and then make them available to manufacturers world over.

These purchases could be done not just for the patents, but also for providing assistance for technology transfer. This would maintain incentives for research, development and innovation, and at the same time protect populations around the world and in the US from the rise of variants that may be able to evade the vaccines we have.

Farasat Bokhari has been on grants which received funds from NIHR (UK), NIMH (US). He is also a member of Centre for Competition Policy at University of East Anglia that was established with funds from ESRC (UK).

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Spread & Containment

War, peace and security: The pandemic’s impact on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to improve the lives of women and girls in postwar countries…

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Nepalese girls rest for observation after receiving the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Attention to the pandemic’s impacts on women has largely focused on the Global North, ignoring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, which continue to deal with prolonged effects of war. While the Nepalese Civil War concluded in 2006 and the Sri Lankan Civil War concluded in 2009, internal conflicts continue.

As scholars of gender and war, our work focuses on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. And our recently published paper examines COVID-19’s impacts on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka, looking at policy responses and their repercussions on the women, peace and security agenda.

COVID-19 has disproportionately and negatively impacted women in part because most are the primary family caregivers and the pandemic has increased women’s caring duties.

This pattern is even more pronounced in war-affected countries where the compounding factors of war and the pandemic leave women generally more vulnerable. These nations exist at the margins of the international system and suffer from what the World Bank terms “fragility, conflict and violence.”

Women, labour and gender-based violence

Gendered labour precarity is not new to Nepal or Sri Lanka and the pandemic has only eroded women’s already poor economic prospects.

Prior to COVID-19, Tharshani (pseudonym), a Sri Lankan mother of three and head of her household, was able to make ends meet. But when the pandemic hit, lockdowns prevented Tharshani from selling the chickens she raises for market. She was forced to take loans from her neighbours and her family had to skip meals.

Some 1.7 million women in Sri Lanka work in the informal sector, where no state employment protections exist and not working means no wages. COVID-19 is exacerbating women’s struggles with poverty and forcing them to take on debilitating debts.

Although Sri Lankan men also face increased labour precarity, due to gender discrimination and sexism in the job market, women are forced into the informal sector — the jobs hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two women sit in chairs, wearing face masks
Sri Lankan women chat after getting inoculated against the coronavirus in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in August 2021. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

The pandemic has also led to women and girls facing increased gender-based violence.

In Nepal, between March 2020 and June 2021, there was an increase in cases of gender-based violence. Over 1,750 incidents were reported in the media, of which rape and sexual assault represented 82 per cent. Pandemic lockdowns also led to new vulnerabilities for women who sought out quarantine shelters — in Lamkichuha, Nepal, a woman was allegedly gang-raped at a quarantine facility.

Gender-based violence is more prevalent among women and girls of low caste in Nepal and the pandemic has made it worse. The Samata Foundation reported 90 cases of gender-based violence faced by women and girls of low caste within the first six months of the pandemic.

What’s next?

While COVID-19 recovery efforts are generally focused on preparing for future pandemics and economic recovery, the women, peace and security agenda can also address the needs of some of those most marginalized when it comes to COVID-19 recovery.

The women, peace and security agenda promotes women’s participation in peace and security matters with a focus on helping women facing violent conflict. By incorporating women’s perspectives, issues and concerns in the context of COVID-19 recovery, policies and activities can help address issues that disproportionately impact most women in war-affected countries.

These issues are: precarious gendered labor market, a surge in care work, the rising feminization of poverty and increased gender-based violence.

A girl in a face mask stares out a window
The women, peace and security agenda can help address the needs of some of those most marginalized. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Policies could include efforts to create living-wage jobs for women that come with state benefits, emergency funding for women heads of household (so they can avoid taking out predatory loans) and increasing the number of resources (like shelters and legal services) for women experiencing domestic gender-based violence.

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to achieve the agenda’s aims of improving the lives of women and girls in postwar countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Luna KC is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Research Network-Women Peace Security, McGill University. This project is funded by the Government of Canada Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) program.

Crystal Whetstone does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Government

CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

After more than two years of missteps and backpedaling over Covid-19 guidance that had a profound…

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CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

After more than two years of missteps and backpedaling over Covid-19 guidance that had a profound effect on Americans' lives, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced on Wednesday that the agency would undergo a complete overhaul - and will revamp everything from its operations to its culture after failing to meet expectations during the pandemic, Bloomberg reports.

Director Rochelle Walensky began telling CDC’s staff Wednesday that the changes are aimed at replacing the agency’s insular, academic culture with one that’s quicker to respond to emergencies. That will mean more rapidly turning research into health recommendations, working better with other parts of government and improving how the CDC communicates with the public. -Bloomberg

"For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations," said Director Rochelle Walensky. "I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way.  My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication and timeliness."

As Bloomberg further notes, The agency has been faulted for an inadequate testing and surveillance program, for not collecting important data on how the virus was spreading and how vaccines were performing, for being too under the influence of the White House during the Trump administration and for repeated challenges communicating to a politically divided and sometimes skeptical public."

A few examples:

Walensky made the announcement in a Wednesday morning video message to CDC staff, where she said that the US has 'significant work to do' in order to improve the country's public health defenses.

"Prior to this pandemic, our infrastructure within the agency and around the country was too frail to tackle what we confronted with Covid-19," she said. "To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes — from testing, to data, to communications."

The CDC overhaul comes on the heels of the agency admitting that "unvaccinated people now have the same guidance as vaccinated people" - and that those exposed to COVID-19 are no longer required to quarantine.

Tyler Durden Wed, 08/17/2022 - 12:22

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Economics

Why Is No One at Nike Working This Week?

And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?

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And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?

You go into an office, pull at the door and find that it doesn't give and nobody's there. 

It may sound like the start of the common rushing-to-the-office-on-a-Saturday nightmare but, more and more, collective time off is being embraced by employees as part of a push for a better work culture.

While professional social media platform LinkedIn  (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report and dating app Bumble  (BMBL) - Get Bumble Inc. Report had already experimented with collective time off for workers, the corporate ripples truly began with Nike  (NKE) - Get Nike Inc. Report.

In August 2021, the activewear giant announced that it was giving the 11,000-plus employees at its Oregon headquarters the week off to "power down" and "destress" from stress brought on by the covid-19 pandemic.

"In a year (or two) unlike any other, taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane," Matt Marrazzos, Nike's senior manager of global marketing science, wrote to employees at the time.

Nike Is On Vacation Right Now

The experiment was, not exactly unexpectedly, very well-received — a year later, the company instituted its second annual "Well-Being Week." Both the corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and three Air Manufacturing design labs with over 1,500 employees are closed for a collective paid vacation from Aug. 15 to 19.

"We knew it would be impactful, but I was blown away by the feedback from our teammates [...]," Nike's Chief Human Resources Officer Monique Matheson wrote in a LinkedIn post.

"Because everyone was away at the same time, teammates said they could unplug – really unplug, without worrying about what was happening back at the office or getting anxiety about the emails piling up."

Shutterstock/TheStreet

Of course, the time off only applies to corporate employees. To keep the stores running and online orders fulfilled but not exacerbate the differences between blue and white collar workers, Nike gave its retail and distribution employees a week's worth of paid days off that they can use as they see fit.

Nike has tied the change to its commitment to prioritize mental health. In the last year, it launched everything from a "marathon of mental health" to a podcast that discusses how exercise can be used to manage anxiety and depression.

Rippling Through the Corporate World?

But as corporations are often criticized for turning mental health into positive PR without actually doing much for employees, the collective week off was perhaps the most significant thing the company did for workers' mental health.

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The practice of set office closures has long been common practice in many European countries. In France, not only corporate offices but even restaurants and retail stores empty out over the month of August for what is culturally considered sacred vacation time. 

But as American work culture prioritizes individual choice and "keeping business going" above all else, the practice has been seen as radical by many corporate heads and particularly small businesses that may find it more difficult to have such a prolonged drop in business. 

But in many ways, the conversations mirror some companies' resistance to remote work despite the fact that one-fourth of white-collar jobs in the U.S. are expected to be fully remote by 2023

"This is the kind of perk that makes employees want to stay," industry analyst Shep Hyken wrote in a comment for RetailWire. "And knowing they can’t completely shut the entire company down, I like the way they are compensating the distribution and retail store employees."

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