What waiving vaccine patent rights might mean for big pharma

Monday, May 10, 2021

William Brangham and Rachel Silverman discuss what is would mean to waive vaccine patent rights.

Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions below. To read the transcript of the video below, click here. Updated: To make clear that the U.S. has not officially waived any patents at this time.

Key term: Patent - “A patent is a right granted to an inventor by the federal government [United States Patent and Trademark Office – USPTO] that permits the inventor to exclude others from making, selling or using the invention for a period of time…Congress was given the power to grant patents in the Constitution, and federal statutes and rules govern patents.” (Source: FindLaw.com)

Summary: President Joe Biden has given an early sign that the U.S. might waive patent rights on COVID vaccines to boost international production. But there are real questions over how effective these moves would be, what other countries feel about it, and when this would translate into action.

  • Technology involved in production of the COVID vaccines we use in the U.S. is patented by many different companies, not just the pharmaceutical companies themselves. Many patent holders are also protected by laws outside the U.S.
  • Some critics of waiving vaccine patents believe that the process of manufacturing these vaccines is too difficult and costly to set up ew factories in a useful timeframe; that copies of the current, tested vaccines may lack quality control and be less safe or effective; and that waiving patents will discourage innovation for future vaccines.
  • Still, the move signals that the Biden administration has made distributing vaccines around the world a priority. According to Rachel Silverman, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, vaccinating enough people around the world to end the COVID pandemic will require significant financial aid and other resources.



Warm up questions: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

  • Who controls the patents on coronavirus vaccines?
  • Why is the U.S. government considering waiving these patents?
  • What are some of the reasons waiving patents might not lead to more vaccinations?
  • How will vaccinating the rest of the world help the U.S.?
  • When do authorities hope the coronavirus will no longer be a global threat?

Then have students share with the class or through a Learning Management System (LMS).

Focus question: Do you think the U.S. should put significant resources into getting the rest of the world vaccinated? Why do you think so?

Media literacy: Who else would you want to hear from to better understand the reasoning behind sharing or not sharing vaccine manufacturing technology and paying drug companies to speed up global vaccinations?

Dig Deeper: 

Republished with permission from PBS Newshour Extra