May 08, 2021
Since the Biden administration announced its decision to support a motion at the WTO to waive patent rights on vaccines for the duration of the pandemic, we have been deluged with statements by experts telling us that this cannot possibly increase vaccine production. The argument is that everyone who can produce vaccines is already producing them. Furthermore, there are bottlenecks in the production process, so that even if another manufacturer was prepared to produce vaccines, they could not get the necessary materials.
There are two big problems with these claims. First, it’s not clear what these experts envision as the end date of the pandemic. Surely no new production can come on line tomorrow, and probably not even in the next few months, but unfortunately, we are almost certainly looking at a much longer time-frame for getting the world vaccinated.
At the current pace, we would be very lucky to get most of the world vaccinated by the end of 2022, and it could very well be much later. Are we supposed to believe that making the technology freely available could not lead to an increase in production in eight months or even a year down the road? It’s important to remember, there were no vaccines in March of 2020, yet several companies had the capacity to produce large quantities by November.
It would have been great if we had gone the route of open source technology when South Africa and India first proposed suspending intellectual property rules back in October. Better yet, we could have taken the pandemic seriously and gone this route from the beginning last March. But even where we are now, there is good reason to believe that we can hasten the process of vaccinating the world by freely transferring technology.
The other point is that the production process is not set in stone. Pfizer announced back in February that it discovered a way to cut its production time nearly in half. It also discovered that its vaccine did not need to be super-frozen at temperatures below minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit; instead it can be kept in a normal freezer for up to two weeks. This greatly eases the process of transporting and delivering the vaccine. It also discovered that a typical vial contains six doses rather than five, which implies 20 percent more doses.
The point is that Pfizer’s engineers have repeatedly found ways to improve its production and delivery process. It is hard to believe that if its technology were open-sourced for engineers all over the world to review, that not one of them could find a way to further improve its production process. And, even small improvements, say five percent or ten percent, imply enormous benefits in reduced infections and deaths, as well as economic benefits.
The same story would, of course, apply to Moderna and the other manufacturers. It also applies to the suppliers of inputs that are in short supply. It’s pretty hard to imagine that, if these technologies were fully open and available for experts everywhere to review, there would not be further improvements.
In short, it seems very likely that if we really got open source technology for the production of vaccines and the necessary inputs, we would have substantially more vaccines available in the not-distant future. Given the enormous potential gains, that’s a pretty good argument for open-sourcing the key technologies.