Vaccines from Biontech, AstraZeneca and Moderna: does the patent protection for corona vaccines expire?
Photo: Matthias Bein / dpa
More than a hundred states, led by India and South Africa, want to suspend patent protection for corona vaccines.
So far, many industrialized nations have blocked this - especially those in which large pharmaceutical companies are based.
But the vaccine is scarce, especially in poorer countries;
the industrial nations have bought up large parts of their previous production.
But now the US government and the EU have announced that they want to discuss the temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for these vaccines.
This would mean that other pharmaceutical manufacturers can also manufacture the vaccines using the formulations that have been protected by patents up to now.
This could possibly produce faster and more vaccine for all of humanity.
At least that is the hope of the proponents.
How has patent protection for pharmaceuticals been regulated so far?
Patents are the basis of the business model for the pharmaceutical industry.
The basic research for a new molecule is often carried out in the company itself, but also by universities;
If a substance turns out to be very promising, some of the university researchers first set up their own company.
Experts from the established pharmaceutical companies regularly scan the market and strike if they judge the relationship between the risk of a setback and the success of a new active ingredient to be large enough.
Now everything has to happen quickly, because money can only really be earned within the term of the patent.
The patent protection is valid for 20 years from the date of its application.
However, since an approval process takes a long time, the term of protection is actually only shorter.
If the patent can only be used economically after extensive clinical studies, the period can be extended by up to five years.
A drug or vaccine rarely consists of just one patent.
In addition, there are almost always so-called process patents, which describe a precise manufacturing variant.
After the deadlines have expired, so-called generic manufacturers are allowed to reproduce active ingredients.
Then the price often drops quickly.
It is not uncommon for the original manufacturer to forego competition altogether and largely leave the market to the imitation companies.
What could a repeal of the patents do for the fight against the crisis?
Proponents - including non-governmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders - believe that the release will allow much more mRNA vaccine to be made in the medium term.
The argument goes that this is the only way to cope with the pandemic.
Because Corona affects everyone - so far, vaccines from manufacturers such as Biontech or Moderna have primarily been given to those who can afford them.
While in industrialized countries, according to UN data, one in five people was vaccinated against Covid-19 by April, in poorer countries only one in 500 people received a corona vaccination.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, speaks of a "monumental moment".
Could the whole world be supplied with vaccine without patent protection?
It is unsafe.
Just because generic manufacturers have the formulas doesn't mean they can produce highly effective vaccines right away.
This not only requires a lot of specialist knowledge, but also the corresponding equipment in the plants and many preliminary products, which can also only be manufactured to a limited extent.
Global corporations such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have painfully experienced how great the difficulties can be at the start of mass production.
AstraZeneca has repeatedly broken its delivery promises to the EU because of massive production problems in several plants.
And 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that had been contaminated in a US factory had to be destroyed.
It is also questionable how much the lifting of patent protection will bring for the existing vaccines, given that the vaccines now increasingly have to be adapted to new coronavirus mutations.
What are the dangers of the possible suspension of patent protection?
A glance at the sudden drop in the price of Biontech, Pfizer or Moderna shares shows that even the mental games are a hard blow for vaccine developers.
The possible suspension of patent protection is "a very problematic signal," said Gabriel Felbermayr, President of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), the SPIEGEL.
»Hundreds of companies have invested billions of euros in research;
only a few were successful.
It is necessary for the industry that, on average, research can be expected to be worthwhile.
Patent protection plays a key role here. "
Even thought games about a suspension could demotivate companies.
"Now there is a risk that industry will cut back on research spending," warns Felbermayr, "if it is not certain that new active ingredients, for example against virus variants, will also be protected."
The example of the GDR shows that state-funded research does not automatically lead to finished drugs.
In the socialist research institutions such as the Central Institute for Cancer Research in Berlin-Buch or the Jena Central Institute for Microbiology and Experimental Therapy, research was carried out on various substances - and with bendamustine, a cancer drug that is still important today, was developed.
However, the country has not been able to successfully commercialize a single active ingredient in 41 years.
Later, western pharmaceutical companies made billions off bendamustine.
How are German politicians reacting?
The reactions to a possible suspension of patent protection, which will also be discussed at the EU summit in Porto at the weekend, are different.
Green leader Robert Habeck told SPIEGEL, "Germany and the EU should join the US." Left leader Susanne Hennig-Wellsow also advocated suspension.
Now it is time "that not only the federal government, but all democratic parties in the Bundestag give themselves a real jolt," she told the AFP news agency.
Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn said: “We expressly share the goal of the US President.
Providing the whole world with vaccines is the only sustainable way out of this pandemic. "According to the CDU politician, there are" some ideas how we can make this possible. "
The decisive factor, however, is the further expansion of production facilities.