Michelle Mao is an IPilogue Writer and an incoming 2L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Soon, manufacturers will be able to use NIH-licenced technologies to develop COVID-19 technologies for sale and distribution to low and middle-income countries. This is because the NIH has finalized its agreement to licence its NIH-owned COVID-19 technology patents to the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). There will be a total of eleven COVID-19 licences shared, including technologies supporting vaccine development, drug and diagnostic development, and prospective vaccine candidates. These technologies will be brought under a global and non-exclusive licence. Additionally, under the agreement, the NIH will not collect royalties for products licensed in the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries.
While it may feel like the pandemic is ending in higher socioeconomic countries like the United States and Canada, vaccination levels in low-income countries are still extremely low, at around 15.9% first-dose vaccination rate. This continues the trend of COVID-19 pandemic leaving low-income countries extremely vulnerable in the face of expensive, patented COVID-19 vaccines and drugs. Allowing manufacturers to access previously patented technologies to develop their own products can dramatically decrease the cost of accessing COVID-19 technologies. A wider pool of manufacturers creating their own products to supply to lower and middle-income countries means they must compete with other manufacturers to keep the cost of products low.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists across the globe raced to develop life-saving medicines that could end the global crisis. Those efforts are protected and rewarded by intellectual property laws, allowing scientists to securely make scientific advances without the worry of another competing lab “stealing” their discoveries. Now, due to a combination of a well-developed COVID-19 scientific field and the global obligations of the United States, the NIH feels ready to agree to a global non-exclusive licence for several of its patented COVID-19 technologies.
This agreement finally comes after early warnings from scholars in public health, intellectual property, and scientists about potential global inequalities that could arise in vaccine and drug development in a global pandemic. Due to the lack of economic resources for lower-income and middle-income countries to bid for vaccine doses and a lack of pre-existing infrastructure to manufacture their own COVID-19 medicines, it was predicted that lower-income countries would be hardest hit. Additionally, from the beginning of the pandemic, health-advocacy organizations have advocated for pharmaceutical companies to share their patent knowledge so that lower-income countries can produce their own generic versions of COVID-19 drugs.
While the sharing of NIH-licensed COVID-19 technologies comes as good news for lower and middle-income countries still grappling with the pandemic, this licensing agreement may have come too little, too late. The pandemic has already swept through a majority of nations where many lives may have been saved if there was quicker and wider access to the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines that the higher income countries had first access to.
In future global crises, the problem of balancing intellectual property protections with global cooperation and socioeconomic inequality will continue. Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic can shed some light on how future policy considerations can be made to protect scientific innovation while minimising the sacrifice.