IP and COVID-19 Vaccines: Unpacking a Fraught Debate

The United States made waves earlier this week when it backed a request—originally proposed by South Africa and India, and now supported by over 100 countries—to temporarily waive international intellectual property (IP) protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other health technologies. The move represents a sea change on the US approach toward IP protection and was widely celebrated by activists, who had pushed on this front since the launch of the “People’s Vaccine Campaign” last year. Activists see the waiver as essential to address unacceptable vaccine inequities and ensure lifesaving innovation is widely shared. But industry warns in apocalyptic terms about the end of medical innovation as we know it. The polarized debate reflects a fraught and painful history, where profits and incentives were too often used as an excuse to let the poor die preventable deaths, particularly during the HIV pandemic.

Yesterday, I was invited to give my thoughts and break down the issue at a GEEologue seminar hosted by the University of Central Florida; my presentation is linked here. In it, I try to fairly (but slightly provocatively) characterize the arguments (and caricatures) on both sides of the debate; situate them within historical and broader context; and point out the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. I conclude with my thoughts on a practical path forward that helps break out of the impasse and end the pandemic as quickly as possible.

I hope this will be helpful and illuminating—but please tell me where and why I’m wrong!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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