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  • Deepika Indran

Locked Behind Patents

The second COVID-19 wave has wreaked havoc in our society and pushed the already fragile healthcare system to a breaking point rattling the government on its path. But not all seems to be grim as India is ramping up the vaccine production and recently allowed it to all citizens above or at the age of 18. This begs the question of how vaccines are produced? Enters the two substantial pharma companies which are involved in vaccine production in India, namely- Serum Institute of India & Bharat Biotech; they've been the talk of the town! Albeit the price point of the vaccines or the production capacity at hand. The Neta's of our country are reverting to means like pressurizing these companies to ramp up production, even going to the extent of threatening them of consequences.

The unseen trump card, which is at ploy here, exacerbating the already worse situation, is the patent laws protecting the vaccines formulae. Pharma giants refuse to share their vaccine technique with the world as it would nullify their efforts and lone expertise. Renowned philanthropist's like Bill Gates have opined that vaccine rollout is not an "intellectual property" with idle vaccine factories waiting for approval. Every step of the process in manufacturing the vaccine has to be onlooked with the highest degree of precision. The Microsoft founder has faced severe flak for his statements which has even questioned his actions of benevolence.

Patents are a form of intellectual property rights granted to individuals or a company for products that are deemed to be novel and have some utilitarian value. Commonly, patents have an applicable period for about 20 years in which the company enjoys exclusive intellectual rights allowing them to establish their monopoly on the product; If any third party wants to pursue intellectual contents, they have to obtain a license from the patent holder mandatorily. Regardless, there’s a significant exception in India’s patent legislative framework known as compulsory licensing, where the controller general of the patent office may allow third parties to manufacture, use or distribute a product without obtaining the license from the patent holder. This falls under section 31, the Indian patents act of 1970.

India, being the world's second largest populous country having a staggering number of 1.3 billion people, anxiety prevails where everyone wants to get immunized at the earliest, but these patents legislation all boils down to the question of morality; Surely, the pharmaceutical companies have burned the midnight's oil in their research and development, lump-sum investments and vaccine production and would definitely oppose to sharing the 'know how' to their respective vaccines. In the process of figuring it out, they've forgotten the entire purpose of the entire charade they pulled, a moral belief – the primary purpose behind their products is to save human lives; especially at such times when the healthcare system is collapsing, and the entire nation is stern with its ever-increasing death tolls, invoking the law and waiving patents seems to be the only viable and sensible option at hand.

Assume the patents would be waived; what would be its aftermath?

Pharmaceuticals would eventually lose out on the leverage of fees they've earned from licensing their patent. This would also mean the companies will narrow their profit margins notably. The government can help the pharma companies out by providing incentives such as a reduction on the taxes levied upon them and honouring the team of scientists who are relatively unfamiliar to the public eye. The best-case scenario is when the pharma companies voluntarily license out the patents to their vaccines so that the government can hand over the vaccine production responsibilities to other players of the market, which would be the need of the hour. Revocation of the patent license laws for a minimum of two years is the least that could be done, and this decision could be upheld in the future for similar case scenarios. The pharma companies are certainly not the villains of this bio war. Instead, they would ascend to a more noble position in the eyes of the public after the virtuous act of relinquishing their monopoly in the view of the bigger picture at stake.

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