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Patent waivers and impact on global vaccine supply shortages

by MD Samsuzzaman Siyam

Waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines will not help to address the global supply shortage, the co-founder of a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company told CNBC.

The push for patent waivers is “political theater” and does not inherently allow others to create safe and effective vaccines, which are already very difficult to make, said Jake Becraft, CEO and co-founder of Strand Therapeutics.

His company does not produce any Covid-19 vaccines but is developing a platform to create programmable messenger RNA drugs, which can trigger the body’s own immune response to fight illnesses.

“We need to commit to what we’re already manufacturing and scale that up across the world as much as we can,” Becraft said Monday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

Vaccine shortage

A global shortage of Covid-19 vaccines has left some countries scrambling for supplies to roll out their inoculation programs. In fact, India — the world’s largest vaccine producer — is also facing a domestic shortage in the middle of a devastating second wave.

Health experts, rights groups and international medical charities have argued there is a critical need to waive IP rights to address the global vaccine shortage and avoid prolonging the health crisis. It comes as many countries are getting hit, especially in Asia, are struggling with new waves of infections due to mutated Covid variants.

But, vaccine makers argue that such a move could disrupt the flow of raw materials and may lead to lower investments on health research from smaller biotech innovators.

Last year, India and South Africa submitted a joint proposal to the World Trade Organization to waive IP rights on Covid vaccines.

Known as the Trips waiver — or Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights — the plan was blocked by some high-income countries including the U.K., Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, and the European Union among others. France, for example, reasoned that the way to step up global inoculation is for vaccine-producing nations to step up their exports.

While the United States initially blocked the proposal, the Biden administration this month said it supports waivers on IP rights for Covid-19.

Boosting the supply chain

Becraft said that the vaccines need to be made in very controlled, high-tech facilities and that the required technology does not exist across the globe. That means that even with a patent waiver, some countries will not have the know-how to produce their own vaccines.

Instead, Becraft proposed that pharmaceutical companies like Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech should instead be provided with incentives to transfer the technology to manufacturing sites around the world.

“If we want vaccines that are safe and effective, we need to incentivize these companies to actually build out manufacturing capacity globally,” he said.

“We need to go to Moderna, we need to go to BioNTech, and say: ‘What will it take for you to transfer your technology to these developing world countries?'” Becraft said.

Unless vaccines are globally accessible to everyone, there will always be a risk of a Covid variant that makes vaccines ineffective, he added. “All of our progress to this point will be for nothing.”

Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council agreed that a patent waiver won’t address the question of boosting vaccine supplies to the rest of the world.

With a patent waiver, it would take months or years before the technology, raw materials, and production capacity is up to the standard required for countries to be able to produce their own vaccines, she told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.

Instead, the focus should be on helping countries that are already producing vaccines to scale up their production.

“Many of these (vaccine) manufactures are already in conversation with India, with Indian companies, on how they can try to have manufacturing in India of some of these,” Biswal said. “That’s probably a faster, and more efficient way to do it than to talk about a Trips waiver.”

Becraft from Strand Therapeutics added that in the longer-term, world governments need to provide more funding and infrastructure support for pharmaceutical companies to build manufacturing sites around the world.

Last week BioNTech announced it would build a manufacturing facility in Singapore to produce its mRNA-based vaccines.

CNBC’s Silvia Amaro contributed to reporting.

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