Patents and emergencies: lessons (not) learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic

A new GROWINPRO policy brief found that in spite of the large amount of public money provided to Big Pharma, there is a structural under-supply of vaccine jabs

The fast development of COVID-19 vaccines relies on the availability of an extremely rich body of knowledge mostly originated in public or non-profit institutions. But in spite of the large amount of public money provided by the USA and the EU to “Big Pharma” for the development of the vaccine, there is a structural under-supply of vaccine jabs while private companies’ profits are reaping skyrocketing profits. The current situation has an impact on the society and economy of both Global South and developed countries and it favours the possible emergence of new variants of the virus, such as the Delta and Omicron.

How to cope with this social emergency is discussed in the new GROWINPRO policy brief “Patents and emergencies: lessons (not) learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic”. The paper is authored by Giovanni Dosi, Andrea Roventini and Caterina Sganga.

They argue that pandemic crisis has shown the dramatic consequences of the neglect by the State of the universal public good character of health, and the corresponding extension of the market domain.  As the flexibilities offered by the current international Intellectual Property regime under the WTO TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement – including mandatory licenses – have shown not be enough to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors argue that the original TRIPs  waiver proposal would have constituted the best response to effectively transfer knowledge to Global South countries, thus fixing the worldwide structural underproduction and distributions of vaccines, drugs and medical devices that are fundamental to tackle the COVID pandemics, yet without hampering the innovation rate in the pharmaceutical industry.

Beyond emergency responses, a structural reform of the TRIP treaty is needed to i) broaden the fields of technologies exempted from patentability; ii) increase IP flexibilities and derogations; iii) exclude commercial sanctions for violations backed from external motions of international organizations. Moreover, the E.U. must reform the Unitary Patent Package to harmonize the treatment of publicly funded inventions and the regulation of compulsory licenses, as well as to provide a uniform system of exceptions across the Union, introducing a system of EU-wide compulsory licenses.

The paper’s main policy proposals include:

  • A broader ad-hoc TRIP waiver from obligations on patents, trade secrets, copyright related to medicines, vaccines and diagnostic.
  • Structural reforms of the TRIP treaty.
  • A reform of the EU Unitary Patent Package.
  • Innovation and industrial policies to boost innovation in the pharmaceutical sector


Read here the full policy brief