COVID-19 took its toll on millions of people and even more are suffering from the economic consequences of the pandemic. Instead of increasing our pandemic preparedness, we are seeing more and more populist calls, both at EU and Member State level, for the erosion of intellectual property (IP) rights, jeopardising the future of innovation. COVID-19 is likely only the first of many public health crises we will encounter in the next decades, and we need to keep innovators incentivised and provide them with legislative certainty. The EU has to commit to the protection of IP rights and champion it not just at home, but globally through EU trade policy.
Policies enacted during the pandemic have predominantly come as kneejerk reactions to issues on the ground, rather than well thought out plans. As we have witnessed in the case of lockdowns and trade restrictions, acting fast without considering long-term costs can be devastating. At a global level, that also involves continuous calls for the extension of the TRIPS waiver, a clause that would allow World Trade Organization members to lift protections on certain intellectual property rights.
Rushing such decisions could imperil entire generations. Safeguarding IP rights is our only chance to make it possible for patients who will one day be diagnosed with incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, or HIV/AIDS, to ever be cured.
“There are simply not enough doses of vaccines, and the vision of the EU future should be not only green and digital, but also resilient,” Franc Bogovič MEP (SI, EPP)
European policymakers should put their pursuit of short-term approval from the voters aside and reconsider the role of intellectual property rights in preventing future pandemics and, overall, what could have been done better. This was one of the key questions of an online discussion between Franc Bogovic MEP and James Tumbridge, Common Councilman of the City of London, that we at the Consumer Choice Center hosted on 19 February.
On average, it can take more than 10 years to develop a vaccine and get it approved. The fact that we are only a bit more than a year into the pandemic and already have several vaccines, as Franc Bogovič stressed, is a great success for the research and pharmaceutical sector. However, as much as the COVID crisis has been a solidarity test for the EU, it has also exposed insufficient investment in the production capacity. “There are simply not enough doses of vaccines, and the vision of the EU future should be not only green and digital, but also resilient,” said Franc Bogovič. The fact that it took some companies only days or weeks to develop effective vaccines should be counted as proof that our current IP system is working.
If production capacity is the main issue, then it is essential that we understand who is going to invest in it, and how the creation of potential vaccines will be funded in the future. “If politicians or society want to start suggesting that intellectual property is the problem, they've got to realise that if private companies aren't going to be investing in vaccines and medicines development, then the public sector will need to step in. Governments will either have to face the fact that there's no one ready to react if we have one of these crises again, or they will have to take taxation money,” added James Tumbridge.
“If politicians or society want to start suggesting that intellectual property is the problem, they've got to realise that if private companies aren't going to be investing in vaccines and medicines development, then the public sector will need to step in” James Tumbridge, Common Councilman of the City of London
Some European policymakers are tempted to trade our progress so far for a quick fix to the COVID crisis yet going down that path would be disastrous. The European Commission should, instead, focus on maintaining our justifiably high IP standards and abstain from supporting TRIPS waivers. Based on the lessons from the pandemic, it is paramount that the EU develops a policy framework that fosters innovation as much as possible. That will make us prepared for the next virus.