n the coming days, a patent will finally be issued on a five-year-old invention, a feat of molecular engineering that is at the heart of at least five major COVID-19 vaccines. And the U.S. government will control that patent.
The new patent presents an opportunity to exact leverage over the drug companies producing the vaccines and pressure them to expand access to less affluent countries.
The question is whether the government will do anything at all.
The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, achieved at record speed and financed by massive public funding in the United States, the European Union and Britain, represents a great triumph of the pandemic. Governments partnered with drugmakers, pouring in billions of dollars to procure raw materials, finance clinical trials and retrofit factories. Billions more were committed to buy the finished product.
But this Western success has created stark inequity. Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far. Under current projections, many of the rest will have to wait years.
Growing numbers of health officials and advocacy groups worldwide are calling for Western governments to use aggressive powers — most of them rarely or never used before — to force companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their know-how and ramp up manufacturing.
Governments have resisted. By partnering with drug companies, Western leaders bought their way to the front of the line. But they also ignored years of warnings — and explicit calls from the World Health Organization — to include contract language that would have guaranteed doses for poor countries or encouraged companies to share their knowledge and the patents they control.
Western health officials said they never intended to exclude others. But with their own countries facing massive death tolls, the focus was at home. Patent-sharing, they said, simply never came up.
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