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Catherine Chammartin, Director General of Federal Institute of IP

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Catherine Chammartin, Director General of Federal Institute of IP

International patent protection: key role in the fight against the pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control thanks to new, effective vaccines. Their successful development is based on decades of research. Patent protection provided the incentive and necessary legal certainty to enable the vaccines to be produced for global demand in such a short period of time within the framework of numerous international partnerships.

The horror of the global COVID pandemic seems almost forgotten. The disturbing images from Italy of overcrowded emergency stations and nightly military transports of the dead to crematoria after the outbreak of the virus in Europe in March 2020 have been suppressed.

Innovative performance in the fight against the virus
The return to normality – and thus the end of regular lockdowns, COVID tests, and the obligation to wear masks and work from home – was only made possible by new, effective vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They were launched on the market less than 12 months after the outbreak of the pandemic. New anti-viral drugs are now also making it possible to effectively treat and prevent serious cases of COVID.

The research and development of new vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics are based on extraordinary innovation in the fields of virology and immunology. Hundreds of development and production partnerships have been formed around the world in a short space of time to combat the virus.

Exemption for vaccines
However, a group of over 60 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), led by India and South Africa, complained that their access to these innovative medical products was being impeded. In October 2020, they therefore requested the suspension of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) (“TRIPS waiver”). Without patent restrictions, each country can produce these products itself and thus ensure its access.

The WTO discussed this demand intensely and controversially. A compromise was reached at the 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva in June 2022 to simplify the compulsory licensing of COVID-19 vaccines for developing countries. A TRIPS waiver was not decided. WTO members are currently discussing whether the decision should be extended to therapeutics and diagnostics.

Intellectual property protection as part of the solution
Switzerland is strongly committed to ensuring fair access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. The protection of intellectual property is an important part of the solution. Through licensing agreements, patents ensure the efficient transfer of technology and know-how, which in turn enables cooperation between public and private researchers and developers, innovative pharmaceutical companies and generic manufacturers.

Without effective international patent protection, such cooperation programmes would be blocked or never even established. The incentive to continue investing in the research and development of new vaccines and antiviral therapeutics would be lost. This would fundamentally call into question pandemic preparedness.

Clear international rules are needed
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a shortage of vaccines and all countries did not have equal access to vaccines as these could not be produced overnight for the entire global population. However, the establishment and expansion of the required production capacities and international supply chains for the procurement of limited raw materials as well as the formation of production partnerships were achieved in record time.

This would not have happened without clear international rules on patent protection. For example, Lonza would not have produced the active ingredient for the Moderna vaccine, Pfizer and BioNTech would not have cooperated, and no licensing or supply agreements would have been concluded with Indian generics companies.  

Switzerland sees potential for improvement in pandemic prevention
Nevertheless, Switzerland also believes that action is needed to improve pandemic preparedness. The WTO must establish clear rules for securing supply chains and removing export restrictions. It must put in place a functioning mechanism to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines in a forthcoming pandemic, so that poorer countries can be provided with them at an early stage. In what is known as the Berlin Declaration, the biopharmaceutical industry has committed itself to this goal.

It is also important to further diversify vaccine production geographically. In the event of a pandemic, the regional supply of vaccines will be better guaranteed, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. This can only be achieved sustainably in close partnership and on the basis of international law. Strong patent protection plays a key role here.


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