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Patent waivers and impact on global vaccine supply shortages

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Losing intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines will not help address global supply bottlenecks, the co-founder of a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company told CNBC.

The demand for patent waivers is “political theater” and does not inherently allow others to make safe and effective vaccines that are already very difficult to make, said Jake Becraft, CEO and co-founder of Strand Therapeutics.

His company doesn’t make Covid-19 vaccines, but is developing a platform to develop programmable messenger RNA drugs that can trigger the body’s immune response to fight disease.

“We have to commit ourselves to what we already manufacture and scale this worldwide as much as possible,” Becraft said Monday in CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia”.

Lack of vaccine

Due to the global shortage of Covid-19 vaccines, some countries have searched for supplies to launch their vaccination programs. Indeed, India – the world’s largest vaccine maker – is facing domestic shortages in the midst of a devastating second wave.

Health experts, rights groups and international medical charities have argued that there is an urgent need to abandon intellectual property rights in order to address the global vaccine shortage and avoid prolonging the health crisis. It is because many countries, especially in Asia, are affected by new waves of infections due to mutated Covid variants.

However, vaccine makers argue that such a move could disrupt the flow of raw materials and result in less investment by smaller biotech innovators in health research.

Last year India and South Africa submitted a joint proposal to The World Trade Organization waives intellectual property rights in Covid vaccines.

Known as Trips Waiver – or trade-related intellectual property rights – the plan has been blocked by some high-income countries, including the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada and the European Union. France, for example, argued that the way to step up global vaccination is for vaccine-producing nations to increase their exports.

While the United States initially blocked the proposal, the Biden government said earlier this month it supports the waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19.

Increase in the supply chain

Becraft said the vaccines have to be made in very controlled, high-tech facilities and that the technology required doesn’t exist around the world. This means that despite a patent waiver, some countries do not have the expertise to manufacture their own vaccines.

Instead, Becraft suggested incentivizing pharmaceutical companies like Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech to roll out the technology to manufacturing facilities around the world.

“If we want vaccines that are safe and effective, we need to encourage these companies to actually build manufacturing capacities around the world,” he said.

“We have to go to Moderna, we have to go to BioNTech and say, ‘What do you need to transfer your technology to these developing countries?'” Becraft said.

When vaccines aren’t available to everyone around the world, there’s always a risk of a variant of Covid that makes vaccines ineffective, he added. “All of our progress up to this point will be in vain.”

Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council, agreed that waiving a patent will not resolve the issue of increasing vaccine supply to the rest of the world.

With a patent waiver, it would take months or years for the technology, raw materials and production capacity to meet the required standard So that countries can manufacture their own vaccines, she told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Monday.

Instead, the focus should be on helping countries that already make vaccines increase their production.

“Many of these (vaccine) manufacturers are already in discussions with India and Indian companies about how they can try to make some of these products in India,” said Biswal. “This is probably a faster and more efficient way than talking about no trips.”

Strand Therapeutics’ Becraft added that longer term, world governments need more funding and infrastructure support to provide pharmaceutical companies with manufacturing facilities around the world.

Last week BioNTech announced that it would set up a manufacturing facility in Singapore to manufacture its mRNA-based vaccines.

– CNBC’s Silvia Amaro contributed to the coverage.

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