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Speed the Jab

In response to intensifying political pressure, US President Joe Biden’s administration now supports a waiver of intellectual-property rights for COVID-19 vaccines for the duration of the pandemic. But an IP waiver, although urgently needed to reduce suffering in low-income countries, may not be enough to accelerate the fight against the coronavirus.

In this Big Picture, Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch accuse private drug companies of deadly rent-seeking and rebut their claims that an IP waiver would set a damaging precedent. And Jayati Ghosh of the University of Massachusetts Amherst goes further, arguing that ending the pandemic – and fighting future ones – also requires public production of vaccine supplies.

But Yale University’s Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg says patent protections and production capacity are not the problem, and instead advocates helping poorer countries purchase vaccines and channeling surplus doses from richer countries to wherever they are needed most. Michele Goodwin and Gregory Shaffer of the University of California, Irvine agree that a temporary IP waiver by itself will not widen vaccine access – because the main obstacle is trade secrets, not patents – but say that the threat of one could help catalyze mass production for low- and middle-income countries.

In a similar vein, Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence points out that global manufacturing capacity and pricing are just as crucial as knowledge and technology transfer in boosting the global immunization effort. The final key factor, says Heidi J. Larson of the Vaccine Confidence Project, is public trust – and here, people’s belief in the credibility of policymakers, experts, and institutions will be as important as their confidence in the vaccines themselves.

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