Gates Foundation reverses position on COVID vaccine patent protections after mounting pressure

Bill Gates. (John Keatley Photo)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Thursday that it supports the lifting of patent protections on coronavirus vaccine technologies.

Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman issued a statement saying that the Seattle-based philanthropic organization has been working for more than a year to make sure vaccines reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But much more needs to be done.

“No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property, which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic,” Suzman said. “Those negotiations will occur via the WTO process, led by country negotiators.”

The reversal comes after mounting criticism against foundation co-founder Bill Gates and pressure from U.S. politicians and more than 100 countries to lift the protections as COVID-19 surges in India and Brazil.

In a recent interview with Sky News, Gates said sharing the “recipe” for vaccines would not be helpful.

“There’s only so many vaccine factories in the world and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines,” Gates said. “And so moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine from say a J&J factory into a factory in India, it’s novel. It’s only because of our grants and expertise that that can happen at all.

“The thing that’s holding things back in this case is not intellectual property,” Gates continued. “It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You know, you’ve got to do the trial on these things. Every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.”

Gates was opposed to waiving some provisions of the World Trade Organization’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. Devex reported “that a waiver would allow member nations to stop enforcing a set of COVID-19-related patents for the duration of the pandemic so that low- and middle-income countries can produce or import generic versions of vaccines.”

This week, President Biden and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai bowed to pressure and voiced support for a waiver.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.

The US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and we’ll actively participate in @WTO negotiations to make that happen.

— Ambassador Katherine Tai (@AmbassadorTai) May 5, 2021

Suzman said the Gates Foundation is “committed to supporting the continued expansion of vaccine manufacturing capacity in countries around the world, including on the African continent.”

The foundation has committed over $1.75 billion toward COVID-19 response globally, and has backed the World Health Organization’s COVAX, whose aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.

Reuters reported that a pharmaceutical industry source said U.S. companies would fight to ensure any waiver agreed upon was as narrow and limited as possible, as companies working on vaccines have reported sharp revenue and profit gains during the pandemic.

Health/life sciences Bill and melinda gates foundation Bill gates Covid-19 vaccine Mark suzman