Patently obvious where problem lies

Editorial | Mary Ma 10 May 2021

The Biden administration's U-turn to support wavering Covid vaccine patents was more a public relations act than an offer of substantive help to poorer countries that are suffering from acute vaccine shortages.

Populists were no wiser than "Sleepy" Joe - as the US president had been scornfully called by his predecessor Donald Trump - and were unrealistically simplistic when they argued that the vaccine shortage crisis could be solved by waiving the patents.

They are barking up the wrong tree as the global shortage has more to do with production and distribution than intellectual property protection.

For example, AstraZeneca has agreements with pharmaceuticals in more than 15 countries over different continents - including some in the developing world - to produce the Oxford vaccine at cost, which is about US$2 (HK$15.60) to US$3 per dose depending on the region.

Of all the Covid vaccines, the AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs are the cheapest and easiest to produce and distribute - but they are not being manufactured fast enough to meet needs.

The shortage of this UK-developed vaccine based on traditional technology is not related to any patent issue.

Owning the patent has not stopped AstraZeneca and Oxford University from sharing their knowhow with countries in need during this global crisis.

The mRNA vaccine developed by German laboratory BioNTech has also leased Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma to manufacture the high-tech vaccine in China. But reports indicate that a purpose-built factory put up by Fosun has yet to start making the vaccine in China.

The BioNTech jabs that Hongkongers currently receive are manufactured by the German laboratory.

Also, as early as year-end 2020, Massachusetts-based Moderna decided to suspend its patent rights over its mRNA vaccine to share its technology with others - but no pharma company outside the US has taken up the company on its offer.

Perhaps when Joe Biden voiced support for waiving the patents, he might have been speaking with the understanding that - even though a particular vaccine recipe has made public - few are able cook the "dish" to the same quality needed to be rated three Michelin stars.

Although the European Union has kicked up a huge fuss over the AstraZeneca vaccine, its hesitancy to echo Biden's U-turn was well founded.

The vaccine shortage crisis facing poorer nations is not related to patent rights, which are usually linked to prices, not supplies.

It is evident in the AstraZeneca case that price has not been an issue. The question is about production capacity - despite the vaccine being manufactured globally.

The mRNA vaccines are highly effective but they are not a realistic solution to the crisis in the developing world.

If it is already a challenge for even developed nations to distribute the mRNA jabs in deep-freeze conditions, it would be too complicated for a developing country to handle them without endangering their quality.

Perhaps Biden changed his mind after understanding that the so-called patent question was an irrelevant issue in the current crisis.

Instead, he could better help by sharing with the developing world some of the vaccines that his administration has hoarded.

Focus on production and distribution, not patents.

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