GENEVA -- As the race for a COVID-19 vaccine heats up, the World Health Organization is looking to limit the drug patents of the eventual developer to give all countries equal access -- an idea that does not sit well with the U.S., whose drugmakers are betting big on a potential cash cow.
The WHO on Tuesday adopted a resolution promising international cooperation to provide vaccines at affordable prices by limiting patents. The nonbinding resolution was proposed by members including Japan and the European Union, but the U.S. was not one of them.
The WHO is looking at the compulsory licensing mechanism under a World Trade Organization agreement, in which a government facing a pandemic or another emergency lets a third party use patented technologies without the patent holder's consent. The license fee may be kept down to as little as a single-digit percentage of sales rather than the usual 50% or so.
The resolution's proponents, which also include Australia, India, Indonesia and South Korea, worry that the drugmaker that develops the first coronavirus vaccine -- be it a company in the U.S., China or elsewhere -- would monopolize the market via its patent. Setting the price too high would make access impossible for poorer nations, where the virus is quickly spreading.
By putting forward the resolution, the WHO aims to send a unified message from the international community.
Compulsory licensing was initially developed as a system for improving public hygiene in developing countries. But now such richer nations as Canada and Germany are updating their legal systems to make such licensing easier.
Seeking to lead the efforts on vaccine development, America is going it alone. An uproar erupted in March after German media reported that U.S. President Donald Trump had offered funds to Germany's CureVac in exchange for exclusive American use of a vaccine that the drugmaker was developing.
Compulsory licensing needs to be applied carefully. Pharmaceutical companies would become less inclined to develop vaccines going forward if they cannot recover money spent on research and development.
Group of Seven nations are starting to work together to bring vaccines to developing countries. Discussion is underway for a patent pool that Japan proposed in April, Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters after a teleconference with his G-7 peers Tuesday.
Tokyo apparently envisions an initiative similar to a patent pool for HIV/AIDS medicines, which works with patent owners to give access to their licenses to generic-drug makers to produce medicines for developing countries.
Even if the patent issue is resolved, the next question would be how to quickly distribute the vaccine worldwide. Output may be limited at first, so distribution would have to be in phases.
"Priority should be given to health care workers and those engaged in security and maintaining social functions," said professor Atsuo Hamada of Tokyo Medical University. "People with underlying conditions and other vulnerable people also need to be prioritized."
Vaccines against the H1N1 influenza of 2009 were administered first primarily to children, while the new coronavirus is said to hit older adults hard. Debate over whom to prioritize is sure to ensue.
A vaccine might not even be widely available outside the country that is home to its developer. "Securing vaccines will depend on a country's negotiating power," Hamada predicted. International cooperation will be critical in bringing vaccines to poorer countries.