Event Recap: Innovation and IP's Role in Combatting the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Gregory Arcuri

On April 27, 2022, the Renewing American Innovation Project (RAI) cohosted an event with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) on the role of innovation and intellectual property (IP) protections in facilitating an unprecedentedly rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two-panel discussion, moderated by RAI Senior Adviser Andrei Iancu and ITIF Vice President for Global Innovation Policy Stephen Ezell, featured commentary from an international group of experts in healthcare, research, and public policy sharing their insights from the remarkable mobilization of the global innovation ecosystem to tackle a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.

IP Played a Central Role in the Development of COVID-19 Vaccines and Therapeutics

Intellectual property (IP) protection facilitated idea-sharing and partnerships that otherwise would have been unlikely or impossible. Opening the discussion, Marco Aleman, Assistant Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), emphasized that collaboration characterized the COVID-19 response. Breakthroughs in research originated across the innovation landscape, with biopharmaceutical companies, government research labs, universities, NGOs, and philanthropic organizations all collaborating and sharing ideas to accelerate the development of life-saving vaccines and therapeutics.

Jennifer Brant, Director of the Innovation Council based out of Geneva, Switzerland, argued that firms and organizations were more willing to share and publish information since they knew they had legal mechanisms for protecting that information, facilitating unlikely partnerships between industry competitors. Quoting a colleague, Brant called biotechnologies like mRNA platform vaccines “overnight successes that were decades in the making,” as firms like BioNTech which had been developing them for 25 years could now freely publish their findings for rapid adoption across the industry with the understanding they would profit from their decades of investment. From a healthcare perspective, Carlos Felipe Escobar Roa with the Instituto INNOS in Bogota, Colombia, noted that this accelerated innovation pipeline provided doctors with the tools and technologies to save the lives of their patients.

The Question of a TRIPS Waiver

Arguing that it would help alleviate the disparate access to vaccines across the world, several countries, including the Biden administration in the U.S., have called for the World Trade Organization to waive certain IP protections provided under the TRIPS agreement for technologies related to COVID-19. If implemented, such a waiver would effectively exclude certain COVID-19 related technologies, such as vaccines, from some forms of IP protection. Advocates of the waiver argue it will expand the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines in low- and middle-income countries where vaccination rates are particularly low. Others disagree and argue that the opposite will happen.

Moderating the first panel, Andrei Iancu asked the participants their thoughts on the proposal and the effects it would have on innovation in biotechnology. Chris Hattingh with the South African Institute of Race Relations noted a TRIPS waiver would not solve the underlying causes of low vaccination rates in places like South Africa, where poor healthcare infrastructure and significant vaccine hesitancy remain the primary barriers to vaccination. “You have to convince them [South Africans] of the benefits … in ways that resonate with their values,” Hattingh noted, suggesting a government communications strategy to overcome vaccine hesitancy would better serve South Africa than a TRIPS waiver. Jayashree Watal with the National Law University in Delhi, India, was similarly skeptical of the need for a TRIPS waiver, arguing that the existing TRIPS agreement already contains significant “policy flexibility” which allows firms in low-income countries to obtain licenses for lifesaving technologies. Citing an International Monetary Fund study, Watal suggested poor logistics in terms of refrigeration and transport are primarily to blame for low vaccination rates, along with vaccine hesitancy.

Lessons Learned for the Next Pandemic

The second panel highlighted elements of the innovation and biotechnology community’s COVID-19 response that warrant repeating or correction for the next pandemic.

Simon Tripp, Principal and Senior Director of TECONOMY Partners, argued that one of the primary lessons is that prior public-private investment in R&D paid off. In his assessment, government co-investment in researching vaccine and therapeutic technologies was critical in de-risking the innovation process and accelerating tech transfer from the lab to commercialization. The social benefit reaped from faster vaccine access dwarfed the level of federal investment required to facilitate it. Furthermore, the rapid success of vaccine development has given rise to an entire niche market for pandemic-preparedness which will quicken the global response to the next pandemic.

Despite these positives, other panelists suggested ways governments, particularly the U.S. government, should learn from failures during COVID-19. Dr. Monique Mansoura, head of Global Health Security and Biotechnology at MITRE, argued that the national security and foreign policy communities must fully recognize the need for a biotechnology industrial base to mitigate the costs of future pandemics. David Adler with XA Investments observed that when firms or research institutions approached the U.S. government for assistance, particularly for vaccine manufacturing scale-up, it was unclear who they should go to and received very little guidance or support until the advent of Operation Warp Speed. In the future, the U.S. government, panelists argued, must be prepared to advise and subsidize on all aspects of a pandemic response, from pre-pandemic R&D to vaccine manufacturing at scale.

In the words of biotech practitioners themselves, shrewd innovation policy, especially related to IP protections, made a remarkable difference in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy makers should continue to listen to stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem and enable their work in developing critical strategic and lifesaving technologies. Without a supportive regulatory environment and a robust intellectual property rights regime, the pace of innovation will slow, and the United States will be less prepared for the next pandemic.

Gregory Arcuri is a Research Assistant with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Perspectives on Innovation Blog is produced by the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).