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Why the WTO should focus on addressing trade-related aspects of pandemic preparedness

As the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) kicks off (Feb. 26-29), the expansion of the COVID-19 IP waiver remains a contentious topic among member states. The lingering uncertainty around whether the vaccine IP waiver will be expanded to include diagnostics and therapeutics underscores a critical juncture where proactive measures are needed to steer global policy toward more effective pandemic preparedness.

As Vice President of International Affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), I look at this issue through the lens of international treaties and relations. By considering IP waivers, the WTO is going down the wrong path, effectively punishing the innovators who could save us in the next pandemic, stop global warming, and feed starving populations.

What should the WTO be doing instead? How can trade ministers work together to facilitate an effective pandemic response? Will any new policies support the companies that research and develop the pandemic preparedness countermeasures that we need? These are the questions BIO and our members would like to ask the WTO.

A short history of the WTO COVID-19 IP waiver

The decision to waive COVID-19 vaccine IP protections was a bad policy. No country found reason to utilize the waiver because IP rights were never a barrier to vaccine distribution, as a report by the U.S. International Trade Council confirmed. Yet the existence of the waiver sowed concerns among investors who rely on IP to recoup return on their investments.

An expansion of the waiver could be even worse. As SAB Biotherapeutics CEO Eddie J. Sullivan testified in Congress recently, the threat to adjacent patents on therapies and diagnostics intimidates investors, killing potential funding for innovative new drugs. SAB’s patented platform to develop diabetes and cancer drugs has also been employed in COVID-19 research, and all of SAB’s work could have been put at risk by an expanded waiver.

“Stock prices of SME biotech firms that have invested in COVID-19 related R&D have on average suffered more (-73 percent) than the average stock in the U.S. (-5.4 percent) and more than the average SME biotech company not working on COVID-19 related R&D (-55 percent) since February 2021,” Sullivan testified.

Although the proposal to expand the waiver remains up in the air, for now, the idea that fewer IP protections help spread technology still has supporters. Recently, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his deputy promoted the idea of removing “intellectual property barriers” to increase the spread of climate technology. But in fact, as we saw with COVID technology, it is the guarantee of IP protections that allows patent holders to share their technology widely.

How IP can help us prepare for the next pandemic

Another pandemic is nearly inevitable.

Better areas of focus include:

  • Requiring faster sharing of information – such as a virus’ genome – across international boundaries to allow scientists to start their work sooner.
  • Making it easier to trade and send materials for vaccine and therapeutic production around the globe, such as through the reduction of tariffs and other trade barriers.
  • Addressing health system disparities, which during COVID caused vital vaccines to go to waste when some countries couldn’t get them into people’s arms in a timely fashion.

Most importantly, multilateral organizations should focus their efforts within their mandates and take advantage of their inherent expertise. They should coordinate—but there’s no need for duplicative efforts.

I know from experience that getting a large group of nations and stakeholders to agree to new requirements on any issue is difficult. COVID hardly changed that. Moreover, some leaders took different lessons from the pandemic, even as most agree that improved information sharing, vaccine planning, and stronger early warning systems must be part of any significant agreement.

However, a lesson that cannot be overlooked is the role that biopharmaceutical companies – often in partnership with government – played in saving millions of lives. The COVID vaccine was researched and developed in record-breaking time. The existing legal system for intellectual property rights resulted in nearly 100 voluntary licensing agreements and close to 200 collaborations agreed upon for production and commercialization of COVID treatments. Any effort to prepare for the next pandemic must recognize and further strengthen that success by empowering – not weakening – the innovation ecosystem. Otherwise, we can undertake various other pandemic preparedness steps, but the critical vaccines and therapeutics we need will be unnecessarily delayed, cost lives, and the chance to prevent or contain the next outbreak.

The same holds true for other urgently needed technologies, such as those addressing the climate crisis. Biotechnology and other tech innovators are developing solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation. Threatening to take away their IP will disincentivize research and investment that could help us tackle the climate challenge.

Robust IP protection enables the cross-border collaboration we need to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.