Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine coronavirus
(Image: AP/Esteban Felix)

The US has backed a proposal presented to the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

The temporary waiver is supported by many developing nations but is currently being blocked by the EU, UK, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, Brazil and Australia. It would allow countries to produce generic versions of the vaccines at a cheaper price, potentially speeding up manufacturing.

While Australia is likely to follow suit in its support, experts warn we won’t see an immediate impact on worldwide vaccination rates.

Chair of Intellectual Property at Melbourne University Professor Andrew Christie told Crikey patent rights aren’t the issue: supplies and manufacturing are.

“Whilst it reflects an aspiration that we all have that people can get these vaccines more easily more readily more quickly, I think patent rights is actually missing the issue,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to really make any significant difference whatsoever.”

India’s biggest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, is facing shortages of raw materials needed to manufacture the AstraZeneca and Covovax vaccines, while around the world — including in Australia — manufacturing facilities are struggling to meet production targets.

“The worst possible outcome would be that people take their eye off the ball about the real issues,” Christie said — securing supplies, ramping up production and making vaccines readily available to the poorest countries in the world.

He also warned the waiver could disincentivise the private sector from developing future vaccines.

Is this all for optics?

Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Governance at ANU Sharon Friel told Crikey geopolitics was always at play when it came to vaccines, with Australia likely to support its friends and allies.

Christie said he thinks Australia is likely to follow the US lead, but “for political and optical reasons rather than for really substantive human benefit reasons”.

Given Australia doesn’t have a vaccine candidate, we don’t benefit from blocking the waiver — but could potentially manufacture drugs more cheaply with it, especially if an mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility is built.

But pharmaceutical companies don’t just hand out vaccine recipes because intellectual property rights are lifted: companies would have to reverse-engineer production to figure out how it is made.

Christie said the best option for Australia and for many countries would be for big pharma to provide royalty-free licences to manufacture the vaccine and ensure rich countries pay to subsidise supply in poorer countries.

“I don’t think it’s the case that abolition of patents is the magic bullet here,” he said.