Expert insight

Agree to disagree: the toll of COVID-19 and IP role

14 April 2021
  • Thomas Cueni Director General

On 9 April 2021, I participated in very lively debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, and moderated by John Donvan, Putlizer Prize Finalist and America’s best recognized moderator of live event debate and four-time Emmy Award winner. I agreed to disagree with Brook Baker, Professor of Law, Northeastern University School of Law on the future of vaccine patents.

More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that this global health crisis has impacted the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the globe beyond all recognition. Now, as we consider the role played by the biopharmaceutical industry in combating this public health crisis, we must not lose sight of the people who have lost their lives.

Expertise, innovation, and resources

When the virus was first shared, few would have believed possible having not one, but several safe and highly effective vaccines available after less than a year. Few would have also hoped to be witnessing an unprecedented delivery of approved COVID-19 vaccines doses to countries all over the globe. And now, thanks to concerted actions and solidarity, over 100 economies have received them.

We must acknowledge the fact that today, in these unprecedented times, innovation has brought us multiple vaccines in record time, and they are more effective than anyone could have hoped for. This has been achieved thanks to historic collaborations between academics, biotechs, big pharma, developing world vaccine makers, and suppliers, all coming together to make the almost-impossible happen. To make the world feel safer.

This kind of collaboration has also been fundamental to scale up vaccine manufacturing. In pre-COVID-19 times, the total capacity for producing vaccines was 5 billion doses for all vaccines. These include flu, polio, hepatitis, measles, shingles. Now, for COVID-19 vaccines alone, manufacturers have scaled up new capacity from zero to 10 billion doses. In a matter of months, not years, we are looking to double the world vaccine capacity. And to meet this goal, in the past year alone, our member companies have established more than 260 manufacturing and production deals for COVID-19 vaccines around the globe.

Bumps along the road should not surprise us, both in the manufacturing process itself as well as strains on the whole supply chain. Producing a vaccine does not entail simply pushing a button. Therefore, such a complex process will inevitably lead to bottlenecks that will however be urgently addressed and handled.

Collaboration to get us through

In a deadly pandemic, time is never on our side. We are at war against a virus, who, if uncontrolled, can continue to undo hard-won progress in global health and in making lives healthier. In a deadly pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is. Thanks to decades of investments in science and R&D, we’ve been able to mount a fast response against the virus and working with others has helped deploy essential tools in record time.

This couldn’t have been done without innovation enablers.

These are the key points that I shared in a very lively debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, which I invite you to listen here.