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Who will own the rights to a coronavirus vaccine?

An AbCellera Biologics Inc. scientist loads a sample onto a robotic arm to perform high-throughput screening at an AbCellera laboratory in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, AbCellera Biologics Inc.
Summary

The world's poor could be waiting years if a private company controls the rights to a COVID-19 vaccine

International cooperation is needed for vaccine distribution, expert says

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Question:

Kes wanted to know about the potential for a COVID-19 vaccine: “Who owns the rights? How many are simultaneously being tested and is there a likely final candidate?”

Answer:

Who will own the rights of an eventual vaccine for the new coronavirus is a vital but yet unanswered question.

The World Health Organization is tracking the development of 131 vaccine candidates around the world, 10 of which are in various stages of clinical evaluation. The rest are still in preclinical evaluation.

Only time will tell which – if any – prove to effectively inoculate people against COVID-19.

“Whoever gets there first is going to have a lot of power,” said Dr. Alison Thompson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Typically, private companies hold the intellectual property rights for new vaccines and sell them to the highest bidder first, often leaving less wealthy waiting for years, she said.

The country where a vaccine is first discovered could also nationalize it and prioritize its own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, Thompson said.

But, she said, neither approach will allow the world to collectively meet the challenge posed by COVID-19.

“We need to be really thinking about this issue from a global perspective,” Thompson said.

Thompson said giving priority to the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 (often the world’s most poor), isn’t just the morally correct path – it’s the best strategy to tackle the pandemic.

“If we do business as usual, that’s not really going to work to get the people who are the most vulnerable to COVID vaccinated and it doesn’t make sense epidemiologically to do that,” she said.

Thompson, who has studied ethics in pandemics, public health and vaccines, said she would like to see an unprecedented amount of cooperation between NGOs, private companies and academia around the world to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably.

And she has reason to be optimistic.

A collection of major charities, companies and countries recently announced a plan, back by the WHO, to distribute treatments and vaccines equitably.

While the leaders of France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada and philanthropist Bill Gates are among those pledging cooperation, there were two notable exceptions: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Several Canadian teams are researching potential treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. If one of them becomes the first in the world to develop a vaccine, Thompson said Canadian officials will be forced to confront a difficult question.

“If it was something that could be manufactured within Canada, would we prioritize our own citizens or would be part of a broader global conversation about the distribution of a vaccine?

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