IP rights in Public Health

Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, has asserted that vaccination hesitancy is to blame for Africa’s slow uptake of Covid vaccines.[1] This is far from the reality; vaccine producers have prioritized wealthier countries that are more than willing and able to pay top dollar for vaccines, while low-income countries have virtually been shut out of the vaccine rollout. Only 2.5 per cent of Covid vaccinations have been distributed to African countries.

To say the least, the relationship between IP and public health has been difficult. There are several cases of profit being prioritized over access to medication. The cost of medication is a major determinant of access. Intellectual property rights are important, but only in the sense that they are a means to a goal. According to the author, the extent to which IP rights are significant in promoting the required innovation is determined by the context and situation. We know that in industrialized nations with a strong technological and scientific infrastructure as well as a market for innovative healthcare goods, IP rights are seen as a vital incentive. IP rights can’t do much to encourage innovation if there isn’t a viable market for the inventions, which is especially true for items aimed primarily at developing-country markets.[2]

Advantages of IP in Public Health

- The patent system makes the patent information available to other researchers, allowing them to improve on current medical inventions.

- The exclusive rights conferred by a patent are an incentive to make the necessary investments in new medicine

- Owning IP rights allows one to control access to medication

Disadvantages of IP in Public Health

- Commercial incentives are not always sufficient to ensure the development of new products for neglected diseases

- High patent costs add to the research and development costs thus making investments and returns need to be even higher.

- Owning IP rights allows one to control access and use of the medication

IP and Public Health must find a balance where corporations are still rewarded for their research and development and access to medication is not based on an individual’s or a country’s net worth. For global health initiatives, additional innovation models — such as delinking research and development expenditures from commercial sales; Public-Private/Product Development Partnerships; and socially responsible licensing — should be considered.

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[1] https://www.news24.com/news24/analysis/analysis-an-inconvenient-truth-the-real-reason-why-africa-is-not-getting-vaccinated-20211012

[2] https://www.who.int/intellectualproperty/documents/thereport/ENPublicHealthReport.pdf?ua=1

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