Intellectual Property Policy and the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

by Raina Koshal


In January of 2020, COVID-19 vaccinations began becoming publicly available. With this newfound innovation came excitement and anticipation for the long-awaited return to normal but also the beginning of a global economic inequity as a result of lopsided vaccine distribution. This intersection of economics, pharmaceutical distribution, and intellectual property policy provides an interesting situation to dissect.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international organization handling the rules of trade between nations, it houses many agreements and laws, such as the intellectual property law which protects your product from being copied and sold by others.

With the COVID-19 vaccine, intellectual property laws are a critical factor. To serve their populations by increasing vaccine production and creating more affordable versions, a group of developing countries endeavored to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines by themselves. Doing so required traditional protections on intellectual property waived by the WTO--something that can only happen through consensus. The proposal was supported by 100 countries, most of them low- or middle-income, but a group of high-income countries and their trading partners have opposed it- blocking the waiver. This situation is nicely summarized by NYU law professor Rochelle Dreyfuss, “The COVID-19 vaccine is raising questions about whether it's so important to give people an incentive to invent that you're gonna prevent people in poorer countries from having access to the things that they need to stay alive”

The effects of this waiver blocking are felt globally: according to Duke University, developing nations may vaccinate at most “20% of their populations in 2021” whereas the world’s richest countries have “enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over” (Duke 2021). As stated by Dr. Ajanta Patel, the Medical Director at the Chicago Department of Public Health, the vaccine is “by far the most important thing to defeat covid and save our businesses”. There is a direct relationship between economic revival and vaccinating our populations. If developing countries do not gain vaccines, the economy will surrender $153 billion a year in output, according to RAND Corporation (RAND 2021).

Developed countries bring a different perspective. According to Dr. Dreyfuss, “Developed countries are receiving a huge benefit from IP protection”. The government believes that the blocking of the waiver was necessary to preserve incentive and enthusiasm for production and the spread of ideas.