Sharing vaccine tech
The author, a former environment minister, is the president of Seoul Forum for International Affairs (SIFA) and honorary chairman of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies.
Having mobilized the Mossad for the Covid-19 vaccine operation, Israel has the highest vaccination rate in the world. As of April 22, the world average of fully vaccinated people is 2.9 percent, and 0.2 percent of Koreans have completed vaccination. According to Our World in Data, Korea is one step ahead of Myanmar and Guyana’s 0.1 percent. There are 50 countries where no one has been vaccinated yet.
Korea has made deals for Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Janssen vaccines. After AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines were suspended and then resumed due to the blood clotting issue, demands for mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are surging. No country has approved Novavax yet, which is supposed to be produced in Korea in the third quarter. The government hurriedly announced an additional purchase of Pfizer vaccines for 20 million people on April 24.
The pandemic cannot be overcome by herd immunity of a few countries. It is a global issue that needs to be resolved through international cooperation. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, was established in 2000 to supply vaccines to underdeveloped countries, but their efforts are not enough to clear the immunization gap on Covid-19. Since the United States is considering its third shot for citizens, supply is likely to be short. It is uncertain when global herd immunity can be attained as long as market economy-centered economics is maintained. In the meantime, the virus will spread faster, and variants will strike back. The game-changer to win the battle against time is increased production of vaccines.
A total of 175 people, including Gordon Brown, Mikhail Gorbachev and Joseph Stiglitz, recently sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden to stress the need for drugmakers to share the technologies for vaccines at least temporarily as the world economy cannot be restored as long a majority of countries are not vaccinated. The patent rights deserve to be respected in a capitalist economy. But we cannot lose the battle due to supply shortages of vaccines developed with huge public funds.
Patent issue was already controversial in 2020 for vaccine development. The lipid nanoparticle (LNP) delivery technologies used in the unprecedented mRNA vaccine development were mostly tied with patens. Moderna requested the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board to invalidate Arbutus Biopharma’s LNP patents after claiming that the exclusive patent was not appropriate due to the nature of the technology. But the board denied the request, and Moderna had to pay fees to use the technologies. In the research and development field, there is an argument that strategic approaches are needed in times like this to restrict patent validity so that exclusive patent rights on technologies with general utility as a research tool don’t interfere with follow-up research and commercialization.
Vaccines were developed just in ten months in 2020 thanks to the U.S. government’s systematic and financial support, emergency approvals and speedy distribution. The United States had the highest Global Health Security Index in 2019, but ironically, it became the biggest victim of the pandemic. With the emergency measure, the U.S. has become the dominant supplier of Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen and Novavax vaccines.
Governments around the world and international agencies supported Covid-19 vaccine development. According to Airfinity’s September 2020 data, the United States, the UK and the EU offered $22 billion in subsidy. With the pandemic crisis, the global vaccine market also has turned upside down. In the $1.3 trillion global drug market, vaccines accounted for $33 billion with only four companies — GlaxoSmithKlein, Pfizer, Merck and Sanopi — taking 90 percent of the revenue.
In 2021, revenues of Moderna and Novavax are likely to surpass the total revenues of Merck, Sanopi and GSK together, according to the Financial Times. The three big pharmaceutical companies have yet to present Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine revenues are estimated to be 20 times and 220 times of the previous year, respectively. The CEO of Germany’s BioNTech has become one of the 500 richest people in the world after joint development of Pfizer vaccines.
The opposition to a temporary limit on the validity of Covid-19 vaccine-related patents is based on the logic that patent right deferment would increase technology leak to China and other countries. Opponents also argue that countries other than the U.S. and Europe have no capability to produce vaccines and that the limit will discourage other companies from pursing vaccine development. Here, I am reminded of the late Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Ju-yung’s famous saying, “Have you tried?” If you focus on what’s not possible, not much can be accomplished.
The new market for Covid-19 vaccines is expected to reach $10 billion a year. As mRNA vaccines do not go through the culture process, they can be mass-produced in a short term. But it requires LNP technology and facilities. The mRNA platform technology is not complete yet. Advancement is needed so that those vaccines do not require ultracold refrigeration, not to mention the need for lower prices and effects on vaccine variants.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.