As per the Ministry of Health (MOH), 85 percent of the Singaporean population have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and 83 percent have received two vaccine doses as of Sept 26¹. This has met Health Minister Ong Ye Kung’s target, set on 26 July, expecting 80 percent of the Singaporean population to have received two mRNA vaccine doses, either Pfizer-BioNTech, or Moderna, by early September. While the rates of vaccination in Singapore and other developed countries are increasing, the same cannot be said for developing countries. The reason for this disparity is the Intellectual Property (IP) patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines.
In October 2020, an IP waiver was proposed to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by India and South Africa, 2 countries struggling with the virus. The IP waiver proposal is now supported by more than 100 nations, with France and the United States announcing their support earlier this year. On 14 September 2021, more than 140 former heads of state and Nobel laureates² called on the candidates running for German chancellor to waive the Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement for all COVID-19-related technologies³.
This entails a temporary waiver or suspension of the IP patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines for the duration of the pandemic. The intention is to increase vaccine supply, expand vaccine manufacturing, lower barriers to access these vaccines, and overcome pharmaceutical monopolies. Developed countries secured millions of doses in advance with pharmaceutical manufacturers. Meanwhile, the developing world continues to trail behind in terms of vaccination rates⁴.
This IP waiver is not a light ask – its request is put forth against the backdrop of a global pandemic with vaccines being considered vital for global recovery. Dr Onkonjo-Iweala⁵, the newly-appointed head of the WTO, says that “vaccine protectionism must be overcome to solve the pandemic.” Although it is no surprise that pharmaceutical companies would be all for protecting their interests, the makers of the 2 U.S. approved Covid vaccines present differing opinions.
Pfizer says in an open letter that “the proposed waiver for Covid-19 vaccines threatens to disrupt the flow of [280 different] raw materials”⁶ that they require to make safe and effective vaccines. On the other hand, Moderna Inc⁷ released a press statement saying they “will not enforce [their] Covid-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.”
The IP waiver proposal may have set off warning bells in other pharmaceutical companies – that the government can lay claim to their patent rights as they please. However, the Director-General of World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the Covid-19 vaccine IP waiver is “not a property snatch”, but “with so many lives on the line, profits and patents must come second.” The IP waiver is almost seen as a public good that can benefit members of society at large.
At this stage of the pandemic, countries are working on fortifying their vaccine resilience, given the capability to develop and manufacture the vaccines themselves. Singapore is no different. The country had made advance purchases of 3 different vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and SinoVac), rolled out antigen rapid test kits, and carried out vaccine research locally. These are all examples of building a country’s resilience and strengthening the manufacturing sector for the vaccines. Singapore harnessed an all-of-government approach, where all ministries work together closely to enact this strategy. This is testament to the political will and resources that Singapore is fortunate to have.
In contrast, more fragmented societies such as Taiwan may meet regulatory challenges if they were to produce a vaccine themselves. They are not traditionally recognised as a vaccine producing country. This may consequently lead to the additional challenge of getting the vaccine recognised in other countries as part of a possible vaccine “passport” for travel purposes.
Citizens may raise concerns about the vaccine being unreliable due to the relatively shorter amount of time it took to be rolled out into the market. However, one should keep in mind that science often progresses faster than law.
That being said, medicine often takes between 5 to 10 years on average to reach the market, with clinical trials and regulatory approvals. While this is not the case for the Covid-19 vaccine, being developed with relative speed, it does not necessarily point to a less robust or effective product. Bureaucracy and red tape have been done away with, offering pharmaceutical companies a glimpse of what they can achieve with other products. If scientific integrity is maintained for the vaccines, that shines hope on how much faster the whole process of developing and manufacturing a product could be in future, even without any IP waivers.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.